We need to boil water to make chicken soup. We don’t need to boil water to make energy anymore.
Water is scarce in the Southwest, yet most of our electricity still comes from burning coal to boil water to drive steam turbines. Coal-fired power plants use a lot of water at every point in the lifecycle, from mining fuel to generating electricity to scrubbing pollutants from emissions. The cleaner you try to make coal-fired plants, the more water you need.
In drought-prone western states, we need to triage our water usage and prioritize withdrawals to the most important societal uses. Water will always be needed as a vital input to food production. That is no longer true of energy. Newer technologies can substantially reduce the amount of water we use to power our homes, offices and factories.
Sun and wind are abundant and free. Solar photovoltaic arrays and wind farms can turn these inputs into electricity, and they operate without water withdrawals, without emitting pollutants. Battery storage solutions are coming online at a scale that will increase the usability and reliability of clean energy. In the meantime, we have better options than coal for producing on-demand electricity. Natural gas is cheaper and cleaner than coal and uses less water. A study by the University of Texas at Austin found that switching from coal to natural gas could cut water usage by two-thirds.
The most effective way to replace coal is to make the industry pay for the pollution it creates. Coal-fired plants emit a wide variety of toxins that dirty our air, and they produce almost 70 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted by the U.S. electricity generation sector. Congressional action to put a fee on carbon emissions would speed retirement of coal plants and incentivize clean renewables. Carbon Fee and Dividend is a minimal-government solution that puts a fee on carbon emissions at the source – mine, well or port of entry – returns all revenues to American households through a monthly dividend and includes a border adjustment to protect U.S. businesses. CF&D has bipartisan support and strongly favors renewables and natural gas over dirtier, thirstier coal.
Many people remain skeptical about climate change projections, and that’s understandable. Unless you’re a scientist, the link between burning fossil fuels and the weird weather changes we’re seeing is not obvious. CO2 is invisible, as are the chemical qualities that make CO2 trap heat in the atmosphere.
We can see water, though. We can hear it, feel it, taste it and smell it when the summer monsoon rains finally come. We can see its absence as well, in lower reservoirs and river flows, sparse snowpack, parched brown fields and tinder-dry forests and grasslands.
Regardless of your level of certainty or doubt about the role of fossil fuels in driving climate change, we can all agree that drought is a chronic challenge in the Southwest. We must manage wisely for a future with less water, more people and higher demands for energy. Transitioning our electricity generation away from coal and maximizing use of wind and solar photovoltaics will free up water for other critical uses.
We control the length and efficiency of that transition. If we drag our heels, continue burning coal for the next 30 years out of a misplaced sense of national pride, we’ll pay more in the process – through higher utility bills, lower crop yields in drought years and a degraded environment. Why not expend the same amount of personal and political energy on a smooth transition to a clean, reliable and less-thirsty grid?
Water is rare and precious in New Mexico. Our energy decisions should reflect that fact. If you agree, please call or write your senators and congress member. Ask them to sponsor Carbon Fee and Dividend legislation. It’s the right solution for New Mexico and our nation, both water-wise and climate-smart.