Green Energy | How Global Warming Could Boost Green Energy In An Unexpected Way (+video)
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Green Energy | How Global Warming Could Boost Green Energy In An Unexpected Way (+video)

By 2050, wind and solar energy are likely to play greater roles in generating electricity in the US than might otherwise be the case, if water scarcity joins curbs on carbon-dioxide emissions as a factor in selecting technologies to feed the grid, according to a new study .

The study marks the first time analysts have tried to account for water availability as well as emission-reductions in trying to identify the most economical mix of technologies to meet mid-century energy demand, especially in regions where global warming is expected to bring still-drier conditions, according to Mort Webster, an associate professor of engineering systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., and the study’s lead author. The study was published Sunday in the journal Nature Climate Change.

“If you’re reducing greenhouse gases, you’re probably doing it, at least in part, because water is a problem. Water’s a bigger problem than temperature,” Dr. Webster says.

Yet up to now, studies that have tried to glean the most economically viable mix of technologies for generating electricity have focused on the mix needed to meet some sort of cap on CO2 emissions.

“But that never considered the water,” he says, even as other studies looked at the water consumption that coal, nuclear, or gas-fired plants require for cooling and for steam to spin the turbines running the generators.

Researchers call this confluence of water and energy production in a world facing an ever-warming climate the water-energy nexus.

The issue made headlines in August 2008, when the Tennessee Valley Authority had to temporarily shut down three reactors at its Browns Ferry nuclear power plant in Athens, Ala., after a drought reduced water levels in the Tennessee River and a heat wave boosted the water temperatures. In principle, the plant still could have used the water for cooling its reactors, but the temperature of the effluent pumped back into the river would have exceeded limits set to protect aquatic life. Two years later, low water levels forced the utility to throttle back the reactors there to 50 percent capacity.

Similar concerns over water temperature and availability have affected nuclear plants from Kansas and the Connecticut coast to Europe.

Nuclear plants are not the only types of generating facilities affected.

In Texas , the state’s power plants should be able to tap existing surface-water supplies through 2030, according to a study published in January that looked at the impact of weather variability on the state’s electric utilities and their future access to water.

But population growth and the need for more power plants are expected to force utilities to slake their thirst from other sources. These range from aquifers containing drinkable or brackish groundwater to some limited additional consumption of water currently being used to irrigate “low value” crops, the report suggests.

All of these are likely to be more expensive than currently available surface water supplies, according to the report prepared by energy and water specialists at Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill.; Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M.; and the University of Texasat Austin.

Given Texas’ history of drought and the the prospect that droughts will become more frequent and

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