Rising carbon emissions may lead to unprecedented "megadroughts" in the United States later this century, according to a recent NASA report. And these droughts could impact our lights as much as our lawns.
That's because powering computers, phones, lamps, and other appliances requires massive amounts of water. In fact, fossil fuel and nuclear power plants, which currently produce more than 80 percent of our electricity, use as much freshwater as the nation's farms.
Like car engines, fossil fuel and nuclear plants get extremely hot during operation. Without water to keep machinery cool, these plants must throttle back production -- or even shut down.
This Achilles heel has already jeopardized Americans' access to affordable, reliable energy. Drought conditions in the Southeast during 2008, for example, forced Tennessee Valley Authority to idle all three reactors at its Browns Ferry nuclear plant. When unexpected shutdowns like this occur, utilities often need to purchase expensive replacement power: passing high costs on to customers.
In 2011, Texas found itself in the midst of the worst one-year drought in its history. As extreme heat pushed demand for electricity to an all-time high, water -- needed to cool the state's coal, nuclear, and gas plants -- was in short supply. Officials warned of rolling blackouts, which never struck due to the development of wind farms. That summer, wind power provided as much as 18 percent of the state's electricity needs. Unlike Texas' coal plants, its wind turbines required no water, and without them, Texans may have found themselves in the dark.
Fortunately, water-efficient energy technologies are readily available. Wind and solar, the nation's fastest growing renewable energy sources, require far less water than fossil fuel or nuclear power plants. Solar panels, for example, which are being installed on rooftops across the country at a rate of one every 150 seconds, use virtually no water.