Electricity generation in the United States can be extremely thirsty. But the technological revolution occurring now in the electric sector offers the U.S. and other countries the opportunity to decouple its generation mix substantially from water resources. The rapidly growing renewables and energy efficiency industries, coupled with energy storage markets, will soon dominate investment patterns in the electric sector. They have proven their market staying power and have already impacted the financial viability of conventional coal-fired and nuclear power plants—mitigating some of the negative effects of these traditional power sources in the process.
Modern renewables are superior to conventional power plants in a number of critical and strategic ways that make their increasing dominance in the sector inevitable and permanent:
– Continued cost reductions
– Ease and pace of deployment
– Relatively low financial risk (compared to conventional power)
– Calculable construction and operating costs
– Few impacts on water quality and availability
– Modular design (able to be sized properly for any operational context) – Minimal impacts on public health
– Grid resiliency attributes
– Minimal climate impacts
– Ability to be mass-produced
– Continuous technological improvements
– Reduced air pollution
Another distinct advantage of renewables, storage, building efficiency, and fuel cell and wave technologies is that they can be thoroughly tested over a number of unit generations until they are ready for commercialization. This is in contrast to new nuclear or coal-based power plant designs, which are not, for all practical purposes, commercially viable at this time. Furthermore, no utility company or its stockholders will support billions of dollars in investment over decades for a full-scale power plant to properly commercialize “new” nuclear or coal gasification. These designs either exist only on paper or are construction nightmares, with the industry looking to shift all financial risk to taxpayers and ratepayers.
In cases where they have been deployed, construction begins as an experiment with massive public R&D and financial support behind them. Under such conditions, cost overruns are inevitable. The array of public funding includes loan guarantees, construction work in progress,367 and federal and state tax credits. Only after all or a substantial portion of the construction risk is shifted to the public (in other words, only after significant construction subsidies are in place) will the private sector consider financial support for such projects.
Due to these issues with conventional fuels, and rapid technological development in recent years, renewable, efficiency, and storage technologies are experiencing much growth and success in the marketplace. Although it is also unclear how these markets will develop under the new administration.
Ultimately, this chapter will demonstrate the critical need to reduce, and eventually, eliminate U.S. reliance on thermoelectric generation as quickly as possible due to the sector’s enormous impact on water availability and quality. Given the state of technology combined with investor and public interest in renewables, efficiency, and storage, it is possible to substantially decouple the energy sector from water.
The continued success of renewables, storage, and energy efficiency in the electric sector depends on the design of public policies. The debate in the country has shifted from the viability and cost of renewables to how best to accommodate renewable energy, energy efficiency, and energy storage deployment in the midst of resistance from special interest groups such as utilities. These technologies are fundamentally changing the energy paradigm, and it is in the country’s best interests to embrace this transition and to create regulatory and policy regimes that are fair and equitable to ratepayers of all classes and income levels.