Nuclear power and fossil fuels face water crises and other problems
It has not been a good year so far for King Coal, Big Oil, and whatever nickname we give to the nuclear energy industry.
Two weeks ago, TIME reported that nuclear plants in the southeastern U.S. may be forced to cut power production or temporarily shut down later this year because the year-long drought has left too little water to cool the reactors.
There already has been one drought-related shutdown in Alabama. And while officials aren’t yet predicting brownouts, utilities will be forced to buy expensive replacement power from other places, leading to “shockingly high electric bills for millions of southerners.”
Unfortunately, the Southeast is precisely where the nuclear energy industry has been looking as the best location for new power plants, in part because they believe there is less public resistance there. We’ll see how the public feels when those “shockingly high electric bills” arrive in the mail.
The South’s problems are not unique. The Associated Press reports that 24 of the nation’s 104 nukes are in areas experiencing the most severe drought.
Then came an email from the chief executive of Royal Dutch Shell to his staff, predicting that the production of conventional oil supplies won’t be able to keep pace with world demand after 2015 — a mere seven years from now.
That’s very bad news for oil-dependent economies, including ours. Five of the last seven recessions in the U.S. economy have been preceded by big increases in the price of oil (PDF), and today’s oil prices are one of the factors being blamed for the economic slowdown and possible recession we’re experiencing now. The email from Shell’s Jeroen van der Veer suggests that unless we figure out how to replace conventional oil or how to stop economic development and population growth around the world, high oil prices are here to stay. It’s the old law of supply and demand.
Next came word from the U.S. Department of Energy that it has cancelled plans to build the country’s first clean-coal plant in Illinois. The DOE cited economics — the cost to taxpayers has gone from $800 million when the project was announced five years ago to $1.33 billion today — and said it wasn’t ready to find the plant environmentally acceptable.
To make matters worse, the Wall Street Journal reported last week that three of the nation’s biggest investment banks are going to make it harder to build coal-fired power plants in the United States. Citigroup, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., and Morgan Stanley anticipate that the federal government will cap greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants before long. Investors don’t want to loan money to a new power plant whose debt could go bad under the additional expense of carbon allowances.
What does all this bad news mean? For those who have the courage to look, the end of the era of finite fuels is in sight. The end always was inevitable, of course. That’s what finite is all about. But I believe that oil, coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy — let’s call them the Finite Four — are entering their end game.
Like prisoners on the way to the gallows, they’re bargaining desperately for a reprieve. Van der Veer recommends more effort to harvest unconventional oil from tar sands and more environmentally sensitive and harder-to-reach places. But tar sands, oil shale, liquid fuels from coal, and other unconventional fossil fuels promise nothing but more problems. They are filthy. They accelerate global warming. They use a lot of energy and water.
And water may be their biggest problem of all. Water already is considered a global crisis by some experts, and it seems to be reaching that status in the United States. A new study shows that the water crisis already underway in the far West is due to global warming. Snow pack is the source for 75 percent of the West’s water — and snow pack is declining.
Fossil energy has a history of sucking up substantial water in the West. A study (PDF) by Western Resource Advocates found that coal and gas-fired power plants withdrew more than 650 million gallons of water per day from seven dry western states in 2000 — Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — enough to take care of the water needs of at least 3.64 million people for a year.
The fossil industry’s thirst will get worse if it produces unconventional fuels. It takes four barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil from tar sands and oil shale. Every gallon diverted to energy production is a gallon denied to cities, other industries, and farms, including those that could grow energy crops to replace oil. Today in Colorado, Shell reportedly is buying up all the water rights it can in preparation for major oil-shale production.
Meantime, renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar don’t cause or suffer from water problems, and energy efficiency actually saves water. Western Resource Advocates has calculated that if the eight western states mentioned above developed only a small part of their potential renewable resources, they could save nearly 120 million gallons of water each day. Faster adoption of energy efficiency measures in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming could save 25 billion gallons a year — 10 percent of current water consumption — by 2010, the organization says.
Declining supplies, rising prices, worsening water problems … it is time for the big, entrenched, troubled Finite Four to recognize that the end is near. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the well-known expert on dying, identified five stages through which patients pass when they discover they have a terminal illness: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
The Finite Four have entered Stage 3. Perhaps when they progress to State 5 — acceptance — they will grasp the new reality the world faces today: If they want life, they must end their own addiction to finite resources and join in a transition to sustainable, renewable energy.