Water-Smart Power: Strengthening the U.S. Electricity System in a Warming World

Union of Concerned Scientists

[From Press Release] …Today’s electricity system cannot meet our needs in a future of growing demand for power, worsening strains on water resources, and an urgent need to mitigate climate change.

But we can dramatically reduce these water and climate risks by choosing options such as renewable energy and energy efficiency. The key is to understand what a low-carbon, “water-smart” electricity future looks like – and to make decisions today that move the country down that path…

The U.S. power sector is currently on a “business-as-usual” pathway that would primarily replace coal with natural gas, which is currently projected to supply 60 percent of the country’s power by 2050.

  • This business-as-usual scenario would do little or nothing to address the power sector’s carbon emissions, which would stay within 5 percent of current levels through 2050.
  • Water withdrawals — water taken in by power plants for cooling and then released — would decline more than 80 percent by 2050 under a business-as-usual scenario. Water consumption — water taken in but not returned — would drop by more than 40 percent.
  • However, these declines in water withdrawals and consumption would occur largely after 2030, a 20-year delay that leaves the power industry unnecessarily vulnerable to drought and exacerbates competition with other water users…

The U.S. has the technology and resources to more than meet the projected 2050 growth in electricity demand through improved energy efficiency, and produce 80 percent of the remainder from renewable energy sources.

  • In this renewables-and-efficiency scenario, power sector carbon emissions would drop 90 percent below current levels by 2050.
  • Water withdrawals would decline 97 percent from current levels by 2050 — much more than in a business-as-usual scenario. They would also drop more quickly, with 2030 withdrawals only half as much as a business-as-usual scenario.
  • Water consumption would decline 85 percent from current levels by 2050, significantly more than the business-as-usual scenario.

To accomplish this — and to safeguard our water resources and effectively address climate change — we must make decisions today that prioritize low-carbon, water-smart options in the U.S. electricity mix…


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