There’s a Bright Side to the Double Standard for Big Solar

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With Lake Mead predicted to run dry by 2021, energy which does not use water is going to be even more crucial to the energy future of the Southwest. Coal plants providing a quarter of Queensland’s electricity in Australia had to get shut down during Australia’s 14 year drought, because they needed a running river to keep them going. Nuclear plants in Europe have been shut down in drought summers for the same reason.

When push comes to shove, we humans really need to drink water more than we need to keep the lights on.

So one way that the West can really safeguard future energy supplies is to require that our energy come from sources that need no water. Although the California CEC just approved one wet-cooled solar thermal project (Abengoa Solar – 250 MW in the Mojave desert), most of the new solar projects now going ahead in the West as part of the US doubling of renewables by the Recovery Act are being required to use dry cooling – even though it’s more expensive.

it is being held to a higher standard of environmental purity than coal, nuclear and gas, all of which use more water than solar to make energy.

As an example of this higher standard for solar, last week Arizona’s public utility rule-making organization, the ACC (Arizona Corporation Commission) voted to require that the proposed $2 billion 340 MW Hualapai Valley Solar thermal project be completely revised to use dry-cooling technologies.

In this case the developer had struck a deal with a city to reuse waste water for more than half of its cooling needs. But it also proposed to use some groundwater. It costs more to dry-cool solar, so this may now kill the project, which had been financed on the assumption that it could be approved using the cheaper wet-cooling.

After all, it uses less water than the nuclear, gas and coal plants that have been consistently approved over the last fifty years, and half of the water it would use was effluent. But that is just the double standard that the new solar plants have to meet to hurdle the permitting process.

Now the developer has to go back and round up new financing (that might not be found) to support the longer payback using more expensive dry-cooling.

It has always seemed unfair to me, that now that solar is finally moving forward, that it is hobbled by comparatively minor environmental objections. While it is true that solar impacts local tortoise habitat, fossil fuels completely disrupts habitats worldwide for not just tortoises, and pine bark beetles, but all the rest of us co-inhabitants of this ecosystem. And not just for this generation, but for hundreds of thousands of years.

The comparison is simply not there. The water issue has always seemed to be a similarly trumped-up objection, especially when gas plants are being approved at a good clip.

However, in a water-constrained future, this higher standard may just turn out to be what makes solar the winning technology for the future of the West. Western drought has long been predicted by climate science (the next century will be like a permanent 1930s) along with the other effects of climate destabilization like ice melting in the Arctic and heavier precipitation for other regions.

Given the dire nature of our future in the West, it may be that dry-cooled solar becomes one of our best energy options. Along with wind, it is the only way to make electricity that uses no water at all.

Given our choices, paying a little more for energy that can keep supplying power in the future even when the rivers run dry eventually might just not seem so expensive after all.

Image: Creative Greenius
Susan Kraemer@Twitter

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