Advancing the Case for an Energy-Efficient Georgia: The Water-Energy Nexus
When switching on a light, turning down the air conditioning, or charging our myriad devices, rarely do we consider how – or where – the energy we use is generated. Nor do we typically make a connection between electricity generation and water use, but that connection or “nexus” is strong.
How much energy we use and how utilities generate that electricity both affect how much water the electric power sector consumes. Reduced demand for energy has the potential to result in reduced water use. Rarely, however, is the cause and effect this straightforward. To further examine the water-energy connection in Georgia, Southface and the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) commissioned a study from strategic and technical consultancy Cadmus and nonprofit research and analysis organization CNA.
The Water-Energy Nexus in Georgia: A Detailed Examination of Consumptive Water Use in the Power Sector uses an electric power sector model to evaluate potential future pathways for Georgia’s power sector and estimate the water requirements, costs, and emissions of carbon dioxide and several air pollutants for each. Three of six potential future pathways examined involve increased investments in energy efficiency.
The study highlights the fact that depending on the state’s demand for electricity and how this demand is met, Georgia has a wide range of outcomes for water consumption. Based upon the analysis, Southface and SELC recommend several actions to support the state’s efforts to monitor and manage Georgia’s water-energy nexus.
First and foremost, opportunity abounds for Georgia to make meaningful investments in energy efficiency as part of prudent resource planning efforts. Nationally, many states regularly achieve five to six times Georgia’s level of energy efficiency program savings, and in the Southeast states like North Carolina and Kentucky handily beat our energy efficiency performance. For both utilities and consumers, the benefits are clear: energy efficiency is cheaper, uses no water, and has zero emissions. The Water-Energy Nexus study found that if Georgia achieved an annual energy efficiency rate of 0.8 percent, we could avoid the need for 5.5 nuclear power generating units, or 42 natural gas generating units.
Second, additional solar generation can reduce our water consumption. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2015 Georgia produced about 220 gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity through solar photovoltaics (PV), representing about 0.18 percent of the state’s total electricity generation. In comparison, North Carolina boasts upwards of six times the amount of electricity produced through solar PV. Over the next five years Georgia plans to make significant increases in solar PV, though those deployments represent a small share of electricity production overall. However, if solar PV additions continue at today’s rate between now and the study’s time horizon of 2050, these investments would contribute significantly to Georgia’s electricity generation while significantly limiting increases in water consumption. Paired with robust investments in energy efficiency, Georgia’s power sector could realize a significant decline in water consumption compared to 2015 levels.
However, without consistent and reliable data capture, measuring the water use impact of any potential energy efficiency investments and increases in solar PV is challenging. The WEN study revealed inconsistencies in water consumption reporting, as well as the methods used to develop them. Accordingly, Georgia should consider investing in technologies that address the information gap to get a clear sense of comparative water use across all sectors.
In Georgia’s regional water planning process, Regional Councils are to address water quality or supply constraints by identifying and selecting water management practices. However, few if any of these practices address thermoelectric water use. Georgia should strengthen its water-energy planning practice by devising strategies that proactively address this water planning need, as well as consider ways to better integrate water quality and supply considerations into the energy regulatory process. In doing so, Georgia could find opportunities to meet energy demand in ways that save water for other key areas of economic growth in the state, while also protecting and restoring the ecosystem.
To more effectively plan for and utilize our state’s energy and water resources in the months and years ahead, we must first understand and consider the implications of how electricity is generated. To read the full Water-Energy Nexus study, or to use an interactive simulator developed to allow you to calculate the projected water use and other environmental impacts of different potential future pathways for the state, visit www.southface.org/the-journal.