Imagine the absurdity of a highly profitable company not paying to use a natural resource, which has severe scarcity issues, like water. This is the case in America’s thermoelectric energy industry. Such a paradigm has a variety of problems — sustainability and fairness among them, especially given that most of you pay for water used in your home and many of you conserve water buy purchasing low-flush toilets, front-loader washing machines, etc.
Nationally, 49 percent of our water is withdrawn for use at coal, natural gas or nuclear thermoelectric power plants. Thermoelectric power plants primarily use water in the cooling phase of their operation; these types of plants produce the majority of electricity used in our country. Each thermoelectric power plant is permitted to withdraw water from our nation’s water sources through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program, established in 1972 with the passage of the Clean Water Act. What most of these profit-yielding plants do not have to do, however, is pay for withdrawing this water.
Now, let’s contrast this for a moment. The agriculture industry and farmers of our country withdraw approximately 31 percent of our nation’s water. But the kicker is that nearly all farmers‘ highest budget expenditure is crop irrigation. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) water-use report, published every five years since the 1950s, the farming industry in our country has become more efficient with water use. The thermoelectric power industry has not mirrored this efficiency; this is likely because they don’t have to pay for water they withdraw. In essence, it doesn’t affect their bottom-line profit margin, so where is the incentive to improve?
We have a dichotomy in our country that few recognize and even fewer talk about, especially in media and political arenas. A further overarching issue is the lack of funding by Congress to conduct a water-availability study of our nation. The USGS has a good grasp on water use — but not on how much is available in our nation’s watersheds. It’s as though we‘re withdrawing from a checking account with an unknown balance. When the money runs out, we‘ll be charged overdraft fees.
Our nation’s position is perplexing. What to do? Well, let’s go on a fact-finding mission and establish how much water we actually have. Next, let’s not only mandate that the thermoelectric energy industry pay for water they withdraw for their businesses, but let’s also adopt a national energy policy that moves away from highly polluting, water-intensive energy practices. We should adopt a more sustainable energy makeup of wind and solar photovoltaic that has a clean footprint, with relatively little water use or pollution. Our farmers have no other option to grow crops except with water, but the thermoelectric power industry has substantially more water-efficient energy production options. The sustainability of our resources for generations to come relies on our transition to energy generation practices that use renewable energy sources in a less polluting and less water-intensive fashion.
For starters though, what if the energy industry of the U.S. at least paid for the water it uses?
U.S. Air Force Capt. Emily Briley is a senior energy and security analyst at the Civil Society Institute. She has a master’s degree in liberal arts in environment management and sustainability from Harvard University.