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New Report Highlights Massive, Adverse Water Consequences of Fossil Fuels

2 min. read

Another day, another (excellent) report on the many ways in which fossil fuels are heavily subsidized; how their pollution of water supplies, and harm to public health, are not inc0rporated into the price of their products, etc. This time, it's a report by the Civil Society Institute, entitled "The Hidden Costs of Electricity: Comparing the Hidden Costs of Power Generation Fuels." Or, as their press release announcing the study puts it, "U.S. Energy Policy Is 'All Wet' When It Comes to Hidden Costs." Here are a few highlights from the report:

  • "[C]hallenges the underlying notion of the CES: that 'clean' can be measured by a single emission rate, ignoring land and water impacts and ignoring a technology’s full lifecycle."
  • "What the public requires is an honest account of the true costs of electric generation technologies in as accurate a form as possible."
  • "In addition to fouling streams and drinking water through mining and coal-ash dump sites, coal-fired power relies heavily on closed-loop cooling systems which withdraw between 500 and 600 gallons of water per MWh and lose most of this via evaporation"
  • "Biomass also requires vast amounts of water. The report notes that a typical 50 megawatt (MW) biomass plant could withdraw roughly 242 million gallons of water per year and lose most of this."
  • "Fracking shale wells can use anywhere from two to 10 million gallons of water per well. The water is often extracted from on-site surface or groundwater supplies. Such huge water withdrawals raise serious concerns about the impacts on ecosystems and drinking water supplies, especially in areas under drought conditions"
  • "The rush to drill for shale gas is one of the best recent examples of how the costs of water pollution are ignored in the pursuit of supposedly cheap energy."
  • "Too often left out of the equation are a number of important 'hidden' costs, also called 'indirect' or 'externalized' costs, associated with each generation technology. These include costs to society such as depletion of water and other resources, air and water pollution, detrimental impacts on human health and the environment, and contributions to global climate change."
  • "By contrast, wind and solar photovoltaic power requires little water in the electricity generation process....Estimates of the lifecycle water withdrawals from wind projects, including both onshore and offshore projects, range from just 55 to 85 gallons per MWh.

Just to emphasize that last point: wind and solar have almost no negative "externalities," certainly not compared to fossil fuels. When was the last time you heard of a disastrous "sun spill" or "wind leak?" That's right, you haven't, because of course the very thought of those things is laughable. That's in stark contrast to the deadly serious consequences of oil spills, pipeline leaks, overuse of precious (and increasingly scarce) water supplies, and damage to public resources of all kinds stemming from fossil fuel production and consumption.

So, how about we start taking all those fossil fuel costs - and subsidies, both explicit and implicit - into account, then let clean energy compete on a level playing field? That's a battle the solar, wind, and other clean energy industries is very confident they would win.