Global Warming, Thirsty Energy: 7 Dimensional Chess

Experts are scrambling to factor in energy's huge water footprint.

ByABC News via logo
April 18, 2009, 6:32 PM

— -- At first, they look like two completely separate problems from hell imposed on humanity by global warming:

Problem One: Humanity is sliding into water bankruptcy in the American Southwest, China, India.

As mountain glaciers vanish worldwide, many millions of drought refugees -- desperately looking for water and food -- are thought by experts to be quite possible in several regions of the planet even within the next 20 years.

Problem Two: it's urgent all nations make an almost unimaginably fast switch to alternative energy immediately -- including a major retooling of mankind's energy generators and conduits-- in order to drastically cut greenhouse emissions.

This, because a variety of scientific assessments say carbon emissions must be slashed some 80 percent globally within the next 40 years if there's to be any chance of stopping the increase in global warming before it becomes a runaway global catastrophe.

As if these two problems weren't vexing enough, it turns out they are also directly linked -- to each other.

At the Aspen Institute high in the Colorado Rockies, a four-day conference on the energy problems that come from global warming, brought together more than 100 climate experts to wrestle with a number of climate dilemmas ... including the fact that alternative energy is, as they put it, "so thirsty."

"If you look at nuclear, it's enormously thirsty," said Vijay Vaitheeswaran, an energy expert moderating a panel exploring the ideas that water is both "the new oil," and a vital commodity whose ready supply the energy industry is fast learning it can no longer take for granted.

"Nuclear power plants are usually found on rivers," said Vaitheeswaran, pointing out they need water to cool all the atomic heating.

His panel of experts also reviewed how Corn-ethanol crops soak up endless amounts of water, and how hydro-electric dams restrict stream flow and dramatically alter water's availability.

Even wind and solar energy, while they may appear to need little water, said panel members, are often managed in a way that relies on water-based back-up energy sources when there's no wind or sun.