Navigating Energy and Water Without a Roadmap

“Where the hell is that Roadmap Report?"

This is the question people keep asking Michael Hightower of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Sandia Labs. In a recent conversation at a conference, Hightower, who goes to lots of conferences, said that everyone asks him about the National Energy-Water Roadmap that was requested by Congress – wait for it – in 2005. Unfortunately, as Circle of Blue recently reported, the DOE has refused to publish the report, returning it an astounding 22 times, to which Hightower has concluded, “we don’t know how to write or they don’t like the report." Sounds like a case of extreme politics at play here.

Energy and water are inextricably linked. Given our current infrastructure, it’s hard to have one readily available without the other. And thermoelectric power plants that rely on once-through cooling technologies are the biggest users where withdrawals are concerned. In 2005, the USGS determined that thermoelectric power production accounted for the country’s largest proportion of water withdrawals at 200 billion gallons per day.

It’s clear, therefore, that a lack of water resources can halt power production altogether.

Siting and operation of power plants depends on availability of water, which is why power plants are typically located near waterways. With changing precipitation patterns brought on by climate change, and the potential for drought pretty much anywhere, collaboration between water and energy planners and managers is a necessity if we are to ensure adequate water resources not only for energy production, but also for food production, municipal use and other commercial and industrial uses.

The DOE has already done a significant amount of work on the Roadmap Report. In 2006, Sandia published a preview, "Energy Demands on Water Resources: Report to Congress on the Interdependency of Energy and Water" (pdf). But the Report to Congress is not enough. In blocking the Roadmap Report, the DOE is sending a signal that they are not prepared to engage in a national discussion about our nation’s water resources.

What gives, DOE?

Maybe it’s the politics of the fossil fuel lobbies at play here? Maybe it’s an unwillingness to plan? Maybe it’s denial of the problems that exist at the impending collision of energy, water and climate change? Probably, it’s all of these.

The road ahead of us is fraught with energy and water collisions that have the potential to inflict a lot of damage. For example, both natural gas hydraulic fracturing and biofuels production (both offered as lower carbon energy solutions) have shown significant impacts on water quality and quantity. And let’s not forget the unfortunate collision of energy and water in the Gulf last April.

We need integration of national energy and water management. We need national policies that will guide us through present and coming issues that impact both energy and water. State policies, where they exist (National Conference of State Legislatures), will get us partway there, but there is so much variability in state policies that inevitably there will be gaps.

In spite of the DOE’s recalcitrance around establishing clear policies, work on the energy and water nexus continues at national labs, at the state level and by organizations around the country. Here is a partial list of resources that provide a snapshot of what’s been studied and what’s being done. Until that report sees the light of day, these will have to do.

DOE:

Sandia Laboratories Energy-Water Nexus
Brookhaven National Laboratory
National Renewable Energy Laboratories
Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories Water Energy Technology Team
DOE Energy Star Program

States:

National Conference of State Legislatures

Universities:

University of Arizona Southwest Hydrology
Northern Arizona University
The Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin

Organizations:

Environmental and Energy Study Institute
American Solar Energy Society
USAID Global Environmental Center
IEEE
The River Network
Circle of Blue

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