Water | Energy = Collision Course: DOE Blocks Disclosure of Road Map to Relieve Critical U.S. Energy-Water Choke Point

We have a new national narrative of resource urgency unfolding before our eyes -- the impending collision between water and energy. None of the big energy producers or large water use sectors will be left untouched. We need energy to move water, we need huge amounts of water to make energy.

The Illinois River Energy biofuels plant in Rochelle releases plumes of steam at sunrise. The ethanol plant processes over 40 million bushels of corn into 115 million gallons of fuel grade ethanol annually. Photo ©J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue

Among the primary conclusions we reach in Choke Point: U.S. is that the nation has not yet recognized the significance of the collision between energy demand and water supply to the economy or the environment. The DOE Road Map report was intended to be a vital step toward closing that information gap.

The report shows:

  • Managing water and energy separately will not meet US growing energy demand;
  • New power plants are planned without considering water availability;
  • National policy encouraging large scale biofuels production will stress U.S. water supplies.

Circle of Blue's coverage is the latest chapter in the Choke Point: U.S. series, a penetrating exploration of the fierce contest between the nation's growing demand for energy, and the tightening supplies of fresh water.

Next to agriculture, energy production withdraws and uses more water than any other sector of the American economy. The Choke Point: U.S. report, which started on August 3 with a dispatch from the southern Virginia coal fields, and has added new chapters weekly, makes a strong case that the United States quickly needs to reconsider and realign much of its energy production policy and water management practices in order to avoid dire shortages of water and potential shortfalls in energy.

Among Choke Point: U.S. series' primary conclusions are:

  • Unless there are sharp changes in investment and direction, the transition to a clean energy economy will lead to a severe water penalty for the United States. With the exception of solar photovoltaics and wind, the other clean energy sources uses more water per BTU generated than conventional fossil fuels and nuclear energy. In transportation fuels, every alternative -- biodiesel, ethanol, shale oil, and tar sands -- boosts water consumption by two to 6,500.

  • Investment in "unconventional" fuel sources to replace "conventional" reserves of oil and natural gas dwarf clean energy spending. Energy industry executives, fortified by high prices for oil and natural gas, are investing tens of billions of dollars annually to develop oil-bearing sands and shales, and deep gas-bearing shales. The annual investment is far larger than what the nation is spending to make the transition to a clean energy economy. And each of the unconventional reserves produces more carbon emissions, uses more water, and damages more land than the conventional oil and gas reserves they are replacing.
  • Carbon capture and storage technology, which is undergoing a handful of tests as a fix to climate changing emissions increases water consumption at conventional plants 40 percent to 90 percent.