2015 proved to be another weird weather year around the country, especially for Texas. 80 degrees and dry in Austin on Christmas Day, spring wildflowers in bloom, and kids playing outside in shorts — a surprise ending to a wild ride of drought followed by devastating floods followed by drought and then more floods.
Texas is used to drought-flood cycles and extreme weather, but last year the pendulum seemed to swing wildly from one to the next. And climate models predict intense swings for the future as well: After the next flood is another drought, which will likely be more intense and longer than usual due to climate change.
Unfortunately, it seems like during our brief respites from drought, we also take a break from thinking about water scarcity. After the year we’ve just had, this should not be the case — water security should be at the top of Texans’ minds going into 2016. But there are two promising developments for our water future: the Clean Power Plan and examples that cities in other water-stressed Western states are setting.
Good news: The Clean Power Plan will bring water savings
In 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized the Clean Power Plan, the first-ever cap on carbon emissions from the power sector. It may not be intuitive to think about water when talking about carbon pollution and energy, but it should be. Coal, natural gas, and nuclear power consume 580 gallons, 310 gallons, and 460 gallons of water to create one megawatt hour of energy, respectively, or the equivalent of powering 330 homes for an hour.
That’s why the Clean Power Plan could be one of Texas’ most effective water planning tools: By prioritizing clean energy, the plan encourages the use of less water-intensive energy resources. For example, negligible quantities of water are required to generate power from wind and solar PV, and virtually no water is required for energy efficiency. These same resources also generate negligible carbon emissions, and would therefore be a sensible solution for meeting the Clean Power Plan’s goals.
Safeguarding energy and water reliability means ensuring Texas continues to grow and draw businesses to our state — and the Clean Power Plan will help us get there. Compared to the state’s 2012 power generation mix (the baseline year used to create the Clean Power Plan’s targets), meeting the plan’s goals would save 124,000 acre-feet of water in 2030 (the year in which the standards will fully be in effect), roughly the equivalent of Caddo Lake in East Texas. Those are savings worth pursuing.
More good news: Drought-prone western states are standing up for clean energy
For inspiration on embracing renewable energy, Texas could look for examples in other drought-prone Western states and even to cities within the Lone Star State.
But in an incongruous move, the city also opened the largest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere, which came online in November 2015. Although it’s supposed to provide San Diego with a “drought-proof” water supply, desalination is incredibly energy-intensive: Powering the desalination process with traditional energy resources like coal and natural gas means we’re using water to make water. However, one way to make “desal” more of a water-friendly technology is to pair it with renewable energy — which would work well with San Diego’s new goal.
Going into 2016, the best way Texas can create a more reliable water future is to begin crafting a state strategy to comply with the Clean Power Plan. “Business as usual” already gets us nearly 90 percent of the way toward meeting the 2030 goal, but Texas could achieve greater water savings by going much further. Secondly, Texas would do well to follow the example of cities that have gone all-in on renewables. But although renewable energy goals are an excellent water-saving tactic, San Diego’s desalination plant shows we need to think about energy and water holistically to achieve greater efficiencies in both sectors.
Regardless of what kind of crazy weather 2016 brings Texas (and the whole country), now is the time to start thinking about smart water-saving energy solutions.
From Environmental Defense Fund's Texas Clean Air Matters Blog.
Image credit: "wind turbines," Chrishna © 2009, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/