The towering plume of steam appears over the hills to the left as I’m driving south on I-26—a reminder that the biggest power plant in Western North Carolina sits deep in the next valley. Progress Energy withdraws an average of 224 million gallons a day from Lake Julian to make steam for driving turbines and to cool down the Asheville plant, according to the N.C. Division of Water Resources. And while the steam the plant releases accounts for only part of that total, those are millions of gallons taken from the French Broad River basin that will be returned to someplace else on the planet’s surface.
In a time of consistent rainfall, that “gift” of steam to the sky and downwind rivers might not seem to be a big concern. But as the population grows, and climate-change models predict ever-more-severe droughts, the worsening stresses on our environment and our drinking-water supplies will make such a flagrant squandering of this vital resource nothing less than a crime.
After absorbing waste heat from the plant, the water that doesn’t go up in steam is discharged into Lake Julian. And as anyone who’s seen the heavy fog over the lake’s warm waters on a winter day can tell you, heated water causes even more evaporation “downstream” from a power plant.
But the Asheville facility represents only a small part of the state’s energy-related water problem. North Carolina’s 17 large coal and nuclear plants, operated by Progress Energy and Duke Energy, withdraw more than 9.1 billion gallons a day from six river basins, flinging hundreds of millions of gallons of it into the atmosphere as steam, and heating up downstream waterways. Considering solely the impact on our water resources, it’s obvious that this is no way to meet our state’s power needs.
And what do these utilities and other industries pay for the right to siphon off our public waters for power production and manufacturing? Nothing. What do the environment and the public health pay? A lot more than you may realize.
But that’s not all. Seeing these resources as a convenient, free heat “sink” for power plants, a bunch of engineers and accountants apparently forgot to do the calculations concerning how much energy these plants are throwing away. Coal and nuclear plants are only about 33 percent efficient; that is, they convert only about one-third of the massive amounts of coal or nuclear fuel that’s fed to them into usable electricity for the grid. In fact, these plants account for the largest amount of wasted energy in our state’s total energy budget—including transportation and all other sources. Any new plants will simply add to this folly. Replacing these big “base-load” plants with almost any other energy source will increase our state’s overall efficiency. Better ways of storing energy from renewable sources are needed, but that’s no excuse for building more of these huge water hogs.
Here’s a way to think about this: Two-thirds of the mountaintops that are scraped off and thrown into neighboring streams to mine coal produce no power. Zip. Two-thirds of the uranium fuel mined, shipped along our roads and railways, processed, intensively irradiated in the plant and then stored in dangerous ponds or (eventually) shipped along dangerous routes to an as-yet-unavailable storage site; two-thirds of the climate-changing and toxic emissions: all in exchange for no useful output.
But what about the other one-third of the fuel: the part that does turn into useful electricity? Some is lost in transmission from the centralized power plants to where it’s used. Still more is lost in our homes and businesses. But when you think of the two-thirds of all these plants’ operations that produce nothing but harm, it should make it mighty hard for us to live with ourselves—as consumers, investors or policymakers—if we don’t demand a rapid shift away from these technologies. “Clean coal” through carbon capture? Forget it. Even the most optimistic energy analysts acknowledge that it will only increase this kind of massive water withdrawals.
Meanwhile, the evidence is rapidly accumulating that climate change is accelerating even faster than the most extreme scenario laid out by the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And nothing can reduce greenhouse-gas emissions—and thus help stabilize the climate—more quickly and cost-effectively than achieving ambitious levels of energy efficiency and conservation. No other approach to transitioning our energy supply will produce more jobs, produce fewer emissions, or deliver more economic benefits to low-income folks living in inefficient homes.
And for every power plant we cancel or shut down, we get added benefits. We save the two-thirds of each plant’s operations that do only harm, and we reduce our power supply’s overall vulnerability to drought and heat waves, which caused several coal and nuclear plants in the Southeast to power down last year precisely when demand was greatest.
More than a dozen social-justice, consumer and environmental groups have proposed an independent, statewide approach to energy-efficiency programs—in contrast to the low-expectation/high-cost plans run by utilities—that focuses on making hundreds of thousands of homes more efficient, keeping savings in consumers’ pockets and creating locally based, “green-collar” jobs. Called NC SAVE$, it’s currently under consideration by the state’s Utilities Commission and may require enabling legislation next year. If six other states’ experiences with such programs are any indication, North Carolina could eliminate a million tons of greenhouse gases annually within a few years of startup.
Oh, and did I mention that, at the same time, we’d be conserving and protecting hundreds of millions of gallons of our state’s precious waters every day? Just call it water-crisis prevention.
To learn more about NC SAVE$, go to www.ncsavesenergy.org.
Hope Taylor is executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina. A former biomedical researcher at the National Institutes of Health and Duke University, she works with rural communities across the state to protect well water, streams and promote environmental justice.