More People → More Energy Use → More Water Use → Energy vs. Water

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By Leon Kolankiewicz

Leon is an Advisory Board Member and Senior Writing Fellow with CAPS. A wildlife biologist, and environmental scientist and planner, Leon is the author of Where Salmon Come to Die: An Autumn on Alaska's Raincoast, the essay “Overpopulation versus Biodiversity” in Environment and Society: A Reader and was a contributing writer to Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation.

In a career that spans three decades, three countries and more than 30 states, Leon has managed environmental impact statements for many federal agencies on projects ranging from dams and reservoirs to coal-fired power plants, power lines, flood control projects, road expansions, management of Civil War battlefields, NASA's Kennedy Space Center operations and a proposed uranium mine on a national forest. He also has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop comprehensive conservation plans at more than 40 national wildlife refuges from the Caribbean to Alaska.

The writer's views are his own.

August 20, 2013

The California and U.S. populations are bursting at the seams and so is their insatiable hunger for energy.  Because vested interests block them from reducing immigration and stabilizing their populations, in each of recent decades some 4-6 million new energy consumers in California and 27-33 million nationally have been added to our already swollen ranks. 

What does an American energy consumer expect and demand?  For domestic use alone, gasoline derived from oil to keep her car running, natural gas or fuel oil to heat her home to 72° F or more, and electricity to cool and light her home and run all manner of appliances from refrigerators and washing machines to computers and flat-screen TVs.   

While the number of energy-guzzling gadgets and SUV’s per consumer has proliferated in recent decades, overall per capita energy consumption has not increased, thanks to efficiency and conservation gains.  However, aggregate national energy consumption has risen almost in lockstep with population growth.  

Why should it come as any surprise that energy consumption – and associated environmental impacts – increase as the population of energy consumers increases?   Yet given the deafening silence of the Environmental Establishment regarding this obvious linkage, even as it stares them in the face, one would think it was a closely guarded state secret rather than the elephant in the room.

In order to provide jobs and a comfortable standard of living, energy consumers need oil, coal, natural gas, uranium, and electricity.  But these same consumers need water too, and there’s the rub, because meeting these two competing needs often brings them into direct conflict with each other.

Or as a recent headline puts it:  “Collision Between Water and Energy Is Underway, and Worsening.”

Case in point:  When the summer of 2012 heat wave hit the Midwest, the Powerton coal-fired generating station (power plant) in Illinois had to temporarily shut down a generator because its water supply became too warm to effectively cool the plant.

While the blistering 2012 heat wave was especially severe, a long-running drought and associated high temperatures continue to plague much of the West.  The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) reports that problems observed at various thermal and hydroelectric power plants last summer are a harbinger of worse problems ahead.

Most Americans are unaware that electricity generation is heavily dependent on water. For so-called thermal plants (generally coal and nuclear), water is essential for cooling.  Indeed, over 40% of all U.S. freshwater withdrawals are to cool power plants.  Hydroelectric plants use water (and gravity) directly to produce electricity from the kinetic energy of falling water.  

Hydraulic fracturing (aka ‘hydrofracking’ or just ‘fracking’) of shale formations to release their tightly-held natural gas or oil is also very water-intensive.  Hydro-fracked wells inject and contaminate several million gallons of water on average. 

In Kern County, at the southern end of California’s Central Valley, the $15 billion petroleum industry depends greatly on water.   The heavy oil it extracts can be hoisted to the surface only by injecting colossal quantities of water and steam – approximately eight gallons of water for every gallon of oil.  Here the oil industry competes with agriculture for limited water supplies.  

As our population grows, and with it demands for more energy and water, these kinds of conflicts will only worsen.   Climate change is likely to exacerbate the situation further by raising temperatures, increasing drought, and decreasing available surface water supplies. 

U.S. population stabilization is an obvious – though not the only – solution (along with renewables and further conservation/efficiency gains).  Yet environmental groups like UCS disdain it.  That’s irresponsible and short-sighted.    

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