Throughout this nation’s history, we have counted on a plentiful supply of water.
People can live weeks without eating, only days without water. Water has been highways for commerce, power for industry, and, most recently, a cooling system for electricity plants.
A graphic developed by the Union of Concerned Scientists allocates 41 percent of the nation’s water use to power plants. Agriculture needs about 37 percent – presumably in a non-drought world other than the one experienced this year.
Only 13 percent of the nation’s H2O consumption is drinking water.
Land temperature changes much more rapidly than water. As a youth, I enjoyed rowing to the middle of a lake next to which I lived. I noticed, without then understanding it, an interesting phenomenon: early morning fog would move from the middle of the lake to the shore.
Not wind-blown, because it all would have blown to one side of the lake. The fog I watched moved toward the circumferential shoreline. Later, I discovered, it was because as the sun rose, the land heated much faster than water, making the fog-colored air rise in all directions from a clear spot in the center of the lake to flow over the land surrounding it.
With 75 percent of the Earth’s surface covered by water, goes the old adage, clearly man was meant to spend 75 percent of his time fishing.
Unfortunately, with 75 percent of the planet covered by water, the majority of the Earth’s surface, once warmed, will stay that way – or get warmer.
That means, for instance, water in the Great Lakes will become increasingly unusable for cooling nuclear and coal-fired power plants, several of which have been given waivers this year just to keep, among other things, residential air conditioners operating through what has been billed as the hottest U.S. summer since regular records have been kept.
A couple weeks ago, a nuclear plant in Connecticut was shut down because the ocean water on which it relied for cooling had become too hot to handle the job.
Lest anyone think 2012 was a one-time experience, UCS Senior Analyst Erika Spanger-Siegfried reported in her July 30 blog:
- The 2006 heat wave caused the Prairie Island, MN, nuclear plant to cut power to less than 50 percent because the Mississippi River had become to warm to cool the plant;
- Alabama’s Brown’s Ferry nuclear plant was forced to cut power three of the past five summers, including five consecutive weeks in 2010; and
- In 2011, low water in a lake used for cooling by a coal-fired plant in Texas forced the plant operator to pipe water eight miles from the nearest river.
The Susquehanna River Basin Commission, charged with protecting and controlling use of the river winding its way through much of the eastern half of Pennsylvania, in July suspended 64 water withdrawal permits, most of which supplied water to fracking operations.
Fracking – a colloquialism for “hydraulic fracturing” – is a process using water at high pressure to shatter shale more than a mile below ground, to release natural gas trapped in the shale. The process requires three to five million gallons of fresh water each time one of the wells are fracked.
That is three to five million gallons of water removed from a river or stream within trucking or piping distance of a well each time it is fracked – and some may be fracked multiple times.
There have been thousands of such wells drilled in Pennsylvania since 2009, and New York appears poised to remove a moratorium from fracking in that state.
Natural gas has been a boon to electricity producers, many of which have already switched or have plans to switch from coal – not because it is cleaner than coal, but because it is, for now, considerably less expensive.
But it still is a fossil fuel, still releases tons of planet-warming CO2 into the atmosphere, and still requires water to cool the plants that burn it. It’s water that is getting warmer when it’s flowing freely, and it’s water that is warmer leaving the plant it cools than when it enters. And water gives up its heat slower than the land we humans stand upon next to it.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania taxpayers have, through the state legislature and governor, promised to contribute about $2 billion to construction of an ethane cracker plant in western PA. The plant would, if it is built, “crack” ethane from natural gas produced in western PA, northern West Virginia and eastern Ohio.
Ethane is used to make, among other things, plastics – for instance, to make the millions of 16.9-ounce bottles of “purified” water many of our planet’s inhabitants already are drinking because fracking has ruined our well water. And many more of us may be drinking water from plastic bottles as we use locally available drinking water to produce electricity.
Photo by Nicholas_T
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