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Gal Luft

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Water Crisis, Energy Crisis, Vicious Cycle

Posted: 01/01/10 08:20 AM ET

Water Needs Energy Needs Water

Reading Steven Solomon's excellent new book "Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization" I was reminded again of the connection between the water challenge and the field to which I dedicated my life -- energy security.

It is widely accepted that water shortage can -- and most probably will -- lead to military conflict, mass migration, food shortages and a host of other security challenges. What is less appreciated is the connection between water and energy and how intertwined are the energy challenge and the water challenge we are facing today globally.

Water is essential to the production of energy of all forms. In the aging oil wells of Saudi Arabia more water is pumped in to increase reservoir pressure than the amount of oil that is actually being pumped out. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 2 to 2.5 gallons of water are used to produce each gallon of gasoline from conventional crude and more than 6 gallons of water are required to produce one gallon of gasoline from oil shale. Alternative fuels are also water intensive. The voice of the U.S. ethanol industry, the Renewable Fuels Association, estimates that 3.45 gallons of water are used per gallon of corn ethanol produced. Electric generation is no less water intensive. Ninety percent of all power plants in the U.S. are thermoelectric, requiring billions of gallons to cool the steam used to drive their turbines. In recent years, plans for new power plants had to be scrapped because water-use permits could not be obtained. In most countries in Latin America including Brazil, Paraguay, Peru and Argentina, hydroelectric power is the main source of electricity. Want to build a concentrated solar thermal power plant or a nuclear power plants which produce clean energy? Better make sure there is ample supply of water nearby. Solar thermal power plants require large amounts of water to create the steam that spins the turbines and for their cooling towers. Sunny places like southern California and Nevada where solar power would otherwise be an ideal source of electricity often suffer from water shortages that make this form of energy a non-starter.

Our water crisis is manageable using today's technologies. But most of those technologies require energy. Energy in the form of electricity, petroleum and natural gas is used to pump and process clean drinking water. Desalination and waste water treatment plants are energy intensive and their operation is associated with high level of greenhouse gas emissions.

As Solomon correctly points out, we cannot address the water challenge without access to affordable energy. Conversely, we cannot solve the energy challenge without addressing the water challenge. And yet, while every senator and representative has a speech ready on our energy predicament, very few members of Congress or senior administration officials have shown keen interest in water. We don't have a water czar, and since the 2003 death of water champion in Washington, Illinois Senator Paul Simon, very few politicians have done much to advance the issue of water scarcity. Sen. Simon's successor, Sen. Dick Durbin who sponsored the Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act of 2005 which makes access to safe water and sanitation a specific policy objective of U.S. foreign assistance is a rare exception. Since the March 2009 introduction by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Murkowski (R-AK), chair and ranking member of the Senate Energy Committee, of the Energy and Water Integration Act of 2009 requiring an in-depth analysis of the impact of energy development and production on the water resources of the United States not one member of the U.S. Senate found the energy-water nexus important enough to co-sponsor the bill.

In the U.S. water is abundant and there is no need to import it from hostile regimes as in the case of oil which is perhaps why the issue doesn't poll at that high to get our political class interested in H2O as much as they are interested in CO2. If Steven Solomon is right in his dire picture of the world's looming water crisis, that too will soon change.