Clean Coal & Biofuels Will Cause Water Shortages
With the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico emboldening all the denizens of the eco-underground, some voices are once again calling for increased production of biofuels—ethanol and biodiesel—and accelerated research into clean coal. Ignoring the fact that biofuels take as much energy to produce as they provide and that they are only competitive with heavy government subsidies, biofuel boosters are again trying to sell their snake-oil to the public. But the single most damning aspect of biofuel production is the exorbitant amount of water it takes to cook-up a gallon of the stuff. Now it appears that the other great energy scam, clean coal, will also increase water usage—by a whopping 80%. With the world facing a real water crisis in the near future, the last thing any government should be doing is wasting their citizens' money on are “green” energy scams that are really just subsidies for coal companies and big agribusiness conglomerates.
According to the UN report, “Water in a changing world,” in 2007 approximately 23% of the corn (maize) crop in the United States was used to produce ethanol, as was about 54% of Brazil’s sugarcane crop. In the European Union (EU), where diesel automobiles have long been favored, about 47% of vegetable oil produced was used in the production of biodiesel. This necessitated higher imports of vegetable oil to meet domestic consumption needs, distorting market prices in developing nations. In energy equivalence, the 2008 ethanol share of the gasoline market in these economies was estimated at 4.5% for the US, 40.0% for Brazil and 2.2% for the European Union. The biodiesel share of the diesel transportation fuel market was estimated at 0.5% for the United States, 1.1% for Brazil and 3.0% for the European Union.
With typical bureaucratic blandness, the WWDR3 report sums up the downside of biofuels quite well: “When impacts such as soil acidification, fertilizer use, biodiversity loss and the toxicity of agricultural pesticides are taken into account, the adverse environmental impacts of ethanol and biodiesel can exceed those of petrol and mineral diesel.” So, after billions of dollars and euros in government subsidies, only a small fraction of the world's fuel needs have been met, the environmental damage done by the “green” replacement fuels is worse than the petrochemical fuels they are replacing, and that is only the beginning of the story.
Globally, irrigation water allocated to biofuel production is estimated at 11.6 trillion gallons (44 trillion liters), roughly 2% of all irrigation water. Under current production conditions it takes an average of roughly 2,500 gallons (9,500 liters) of water, about 820 gallons (3,100 liters) of it irrigation water, to produce 1 gallon of liquid biofuel. This is roughly the same amount of freshwater needed to produce food for one person for one day. Regional variations, however, can be substantial, depending primarily on the relative percentage of irrigation used in biofuel crop production.
Irrigating biofuel crops is a really bad idea.
The share of irrigation water used for biofuel production is negligible in Brazil and the European Union and is estimated to be 2% in China and 3% in the United States. In India, where sugarcane is fully irrigated, nearly 3,500 liters of water are withdrawn for each liter of ethanol produced. The markets for biofuel and agricultural products are strongly linked. Because food crops and fuel crops can be substituted for each other, all crops compete for the same land, fertilizers and irrigation water. Farmers, naturally, select crops that offer the best return on their investment.
The other major clean energy technology receiving renewed attention is carbon capture and sequestration, the basis for so called “clean coal.” The central idea is that, instead of releasing the megatons of CO2 generated by burning coal into the atmosphere, CO2 from power-plants would be captured and pumped back underground. Unfortunately, the technology needed to capture carbon has a huge downside: It could nearly double the amount of water a plant uses for every kilowatt of electricity it delivers.
Just how much water is pretty shocking, according to Samuel K. Moore. Reporting in “The Water Cost of Carbon Capture” on the IEEE Spectrum website, Moore states, that by 2030, the addition of carbon-capture technology would boost water consumption in the U.S. electricity sector by 80%, or about 2 billion gallons (7.5 billion liters) per day. This is according to research done at the US DOE's National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL). For plants in water-stressed areas, expanded water requirements may make clean coal technology a non-starter.
“It is not likely that there is enough water supply available to any of our plants to allow for double the water use,” says John Coggins, manager of resource planning at Salt River Project, a water and energy utility in Arizona. “This technology was not developed in a water-constrained environment,” says Jared Ciferno, technology manager for the existing plants program at NETL. “The bottom line is that [carbon] capture takes energy, and that translates to additional water use.”
Water scarcity occurs when so much water is withdrawn from lakes, rivers or groundwater that supplies can no longer adequately satisfy all human and ecosystem requirements. This results in more competition among potential users. It is estimated that worldwide water requirements for food production will rise to greater than 80% by 2050 (see “Water Not The New Oil”). With ever increasing food demand, placing automobiles in competition for the world's limited water supply is nothing short of insanity.
Water scarcity is increasing around the world. Source WWDR3.
Throughout history groundwater has been integral to human life and livelihoods, and to stable agricultural production in the face of hydrologic variability. But groundwater is not evenly distributed around the world. Of total annual precipitation of 138,000 cubic miles ( 577,000 km3) per year, 79% falls on the oceans, 2% on lakes and 19% on land. Most of this evaporates or runs off into streams and rivers. Only 528 cubic miles (2,200 km3), or 2%, is infiltrated into groundwater. This bottom line is this, greater and greater stress is being put on groundwater supplies. More water is being pumped than is being replaced and, sooner or later, this will lead to aquifers running dry.
This has significant implications for the future our children and grandchildren will live in, none of them positive. Reduced food supplies, increased pollution from heavy metals and poorer health for all Earths residents. While the IPCC has cried “wolf” regarding the complex and poorly understood climate change, in this case the UN has solid data. Rainfall and the amount of water contained in underground aquifers have been well studied, population trends likewise. When the data are plotted they spell out “crisis” in the future. Here is how the WWDR3 report put it in its introduction:
It is clear that urgent action is needed if we are to avoid a global water crisis. Despite the vital importance of water to all aspects of human life, the sector has been plagued by a chronic lack of political support, poor governance and underinvestment. As a result, hundreds of millions of people around the world remain trapped in poverty and ill health and exposed to the risks of water-related disasters, environmental degradation and even political instability and conflict. Population growth, increasing consumption and climate change are among the factors that threaten to exacerbate these problems, with grave implications for human security and development.
Given that the world's population faces future water shortages simply to feed itself, pouring money into developing biofuels as an energy source is the height of stupidity. The is because, when the water use of biofuel feedstock crops is analyzed, the fuels' water footprint ranges from 1,400 to an astounding 20,000 gallons of water for each gallon of biofuel produced (see “Watering Down Biofuels”). According to Carey W. King and Michael E. Webber of the University of Texas at Austin, by 2030 about 8% of US freshwater consumption could go toward making biofuels—nearly as much as used for drinking and home use.
This profligate use of water by the biofuel industry has been reported in scientific and engineering journals but seems to escape the pinhead news media and politicians set on pandering to farm state voters. Furthermore, it has been reported that burning biomass is more ecologically responsible than turning it into ethanol or biodiesil. As I have said before, the only proper place for ethanol is in your favorite adult beverage.
Population growth vs fresh water demand.
Everything that makes modern life wonderful comes from having abundant energy—be it fuel for transportation or electrical power for light, air conditioning and a big screen TV. And the sad fact is that all power generation requires prodigious amounts of water. Fully 39% of the water from lakes, rivers and aquifers is employed in cooling electrical power plants. An article appearing in the June, 2010, issue of IEEE Spectrum, “The Coming Clash Between Water and Energy,” states that in the US alone more than 132 billion gallons (500 billion liters) of freshwater travel through the country’s power plants a day—more than twice what flows through the Nile.
Even the most trivial things end up using water. Some time ago, I reported about the amount of energy expended to execute a typical Google search. Robert Osborne, who blogs about water issues, calculates that a single Google search takes about half a milliliter of water. That doesn't sound like much, but, when multiplied by the 300 million searches done each day, those idle searches rack up 40,000 gallons (150,000 liters) of daily water use. You know you are in water trouble when the engineers at the IEEE devote a whole issue to the subject.
If you have been reading my columns you know that I am not a big fan of the UN, or large government agencies for that matter. But, in this instance, we really need to pay attention to the warnings they are putting out. Both Americans and Australians have had a taste of water shortage over the past decade, while others around the world continue to pray for the coming of the Monsoon each year, as their ancestors have for time out of mind.
We need to get serious about water and soon. Those backing biofuels and clean coal have their own agendas linked to government handouts and subsidies. Global warming is not a crisis and the energy gap can be closed with existing technology, but the looming world water crisis has the makings of a global disaster. Instead of worrying about CO2 and global warming we need to focus on H2O and a rational energy policy.
Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.