Global Warming, Thirsty Energy: 7 Dimensional Chess

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

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.

And it's not only alternative energy that's thirsty.

"Bio-fuels will have a significant water footprint," said panel member David Harrison, a water resources lawyer and consultant to The Nature Conservancy's Global Freshwater Team, "but it already takes a lot of water to produce any kind of thermal energy transformation -- cooling primarily:"

By some estimates, the energy industry already takes 39 percent of the fresh water used in the United States.

Worsening drought in California and the Southwest already has produced some electricity cut backs.

The same problem shut down a major power plant recently in northern Italy, and the problem of parched energy plants is increasing around the world.

"You have ... the energy need on one side, and managing water on the other side," said Harrison, "and it's going to be a collision."

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

But it's just one part of an overall pattern in the climate crisis -- a pattern that conferences like this are desperate to deal with.

Many of the new problems produced by human-induced global warming worsen each other. Trying to keep track of the interconnectedness is a little like trying to play -- or even imagine -- 7-dimensional chess.

For example, the growth of corn-ethanol biofuel has been shown to raise food prices ... which in some places forces poor farmers cut down more forest ... which releases more greenhouse CO2 into the air (about 20 percent of mankind's annual carbon emissions are believed to come from deforestation) ... which increases the atmosphere's greenhouse gases that are warming the Earth and helping melt Arctic and sub-Arctic permafrost ... which in turn releases even more of the vast natural stores of greenhouse gases methane and CO2 they have been able to hold on to as long as the earth's temperature remained relatively low.

These complex and mutually supporting feedback loops, say analysts, also include many human activities.

For example, as more greenhouse gas enters the atmosphere, heat spikes and dangerous heat waves become more frequent, requiring more air-conditioning (where available) which in turn draws on more electricity ... which is oftern provided by power plants that will now be required to burn more coal, the biggest single source of fossil fuel CO2 emissions.

In other words, global warming ... is global.

Tom Casten -- CEO of Recycled Energy Development, a company that helps power plants produce far more energy for unit of coal burned, observed as the Aspen conference drew to a close that "The fundamental message of all the people here is the interconnectedness of the environment."

The world's nation's are slated to meet in Copenhagen in December to try to agree on how to slash greenhouse emissions worldwide.

That, and a growing number of reports from scientists around the world that global warming is now advancing faster than expected only a couple of years ago, mean that pressure is intense on the experts to connect all the dots in time to control it.

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