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Water, Energy, and Agriculture: Another Reason to Support Renewable Energy

Renewable energy helps America reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, create jobs, and reduce pollution. Recent reports from the Union of Concerned Scientists, the River Network, and the Congressional Research Service illustrate another benefit with huge implications for agriculture: renewable electricity production consumes far less water than coal and natural gas, leaving more water available for American farmers.

High demand for water from powerplants leaves less for farmers

Worsening drought conditions, an increasing population, and higher industrial demand across the United States all contribute to rising competition for water. Among the biggest consumers of water is the energy sector, mainly thermal electric power plants producing power from coal, gas and nuclear. According to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, on an average day in 2008, water-cooled thermal electric  power plants consumed from 2.8 to 5.9 billion gallons of the 60-170 billion gallons of freshwater they withdrew. That means that US power plants took in more than triple the amount of water flowing over Niagara Falls.

American farmers, on the other hand, often struggle for needed water. While power plants and agriculture currently take in about the same amount of freshwater, the Congressional Research Service predicts US thermal electric power plants’ consumption will increase 50% by 2030. If the energy sector follows the business as usual scenario of relying on fossil fuels, farmers who grow our food will face increasing challenges in watering their crops as power plants burning fuels coal and natural gas require larger quantities of water.

Continued Fossil Fuel Use Leaves Less Water and More Arid Land

This expected decrease in water availability will stress water supplies for American farming, as many already face arid conditions and strained access to water sources. Indeed, this can be seen in the dry conditions of the American southwest. Some farmers in New Mexico sell water from aquifers to energy producers, despite severe drought conditions, just to make ends meet.

The American Farm Bureau has raised concern for farmers’ access to water in states like North Carolina, Colorado, and California, and express worry that in the future only farms with sufficient access to water sources will succeed. In addition, the National Farmers Union made the protection of water quantity a national priority, supporting legislation to prevent “future power and energy plants from consuming water to the detriment of agriculture, and requiring new energy plants to return water to a level of quality capable of use by agriculture”.

Renewable electricity production from wind and solar dramatically decrease the water consumed compared to coal and gas-fueled electricity production. In the United States, coal plants are responsible for withdrawing 16,052 gallons per MWh, on average. Nuclear and natural gas are also responsible for taking in large amounts of water, withdrawing 14, 811 and 6,484 gallons/MWh, respectively.

Renewable Energy Provides More Benefits for Farmers

Renewable energy sources such as wind, photovoltaic solar, geothermal, and solar thermal require significantly less water leaving more water available for other needs. For example, the River  Network reports that photovoltaic solar withdraws only 231 gallons per MWh, less than three tenths of one percent of the amount of water required to produce one MWh of coal fired power. Photovoltaic solar offers great potential for the drought-stricken Southwest, where sun is plentiful and water supplies are  waning.

Wind energy uses even less water, withdrawing less than 61 gallons per MWh, coming almost entirely from the manufacturing process. Were the United States to increase its wind power production, every additional MWh of electricity generated by wind power could save up to 600 gallons of water that would have been used for steam cooling in a thermal electric power plant. Future estimates predict electricity provided by wind could save 4 trillion gallons of water, “29% will be in the West, 41% will be in the Midwest/Great Plains, 14% will be in the Northeast, and 16% will be in the Southeast”. Huge water savings mean more water for farmers across the country.