Water anxiety? Wind power can help

The key issue causing electric utility executive heartburn these days, reports Fast Company’s Ariel Schwartz, is water.

From a strategic standpoint, that’s good news for wind turbines, which uses virtually no water, while all types of thermal generation (coal, gas and nuclear) use a LOT. According to the U.S. Department of Energy 20% Wind Energy by 2030 Technical Report, released in 2008 under the Bush Administration, the water savings from generating 20% of America’s electricity by 2030 would amount to a cumulative 4 trillion gallons.

That’s enough water to nearly fill Oregon’s Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the U.S., which has a volume of 4.6 trillion gallons. (It’s also enough, as we have pointed out elsewhere, to fill a string of plastic water bottles laid end-to end and stretching from the Earth to Saturn–and back!)

Still, the problem is not that simple, according to Schwartz. Water anxiety takes many guises: concern about potential pollution of water supplies due to the hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") technique used in modern shale natural gas production (but hey, wind can help there too), water required for power plant cooling (already addressed above), and possible government regulation aimed at reducing fish kills from cooling (wind’s got this covered also).

What follows seems like a conundrum: while water turned up as the #1 issue in an annual survey of utility executives by consulting firm Black & Veatch, those same executives picked natural gas as the "top environmentally friendly technology." Why? Because its current low cost is a significant hurdle for wind and other renewable energy technologies.

What does this mean? Well, first, it means that utilities still view gas as an environmentally friendly technology and are attracted by its low cost and abundance.

But second, it also means that they are not connecting the dots: if water is really a top-level concern, then a serious hunt should be on for electricity generating technologies that use little or no water. And the list of those technologies begins with wind farm.

By Tom Gray, www.awea.org/blog/