By Jonathan Crawford
With the nation beset by record-breaking droughts and searing heat waves, support among Americans for less water-intensive alternative forms of power generation, including renewable energy, is strong, according to a new survey conducted for the Civil Society Institute.
Responding to a survey conducted July 26-30, 3 out of 4 Americans, including 61% of Republicans, 84% of Democrats and 80% of Independents, signaled that they favor more “water friendly” sources of power generation, such as wind and solar.
“A strong majority of Americans want to see a shift to cleaner, less-intensive energy to avoid water shortages and pollution,” Civil Society Institute President Pam Solo said in an Aug. 16 media conference call. “We believe this shows that the concerns about the drought and the water-energy nexus will spill over into the national policy debate about what constitutes clean and sustainable energy.” The Civil Society Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank.
ORC International, which conducted the survey and produced the report, “Drought, Water and Energy: A National Survey of Attitudes,” surveyed 1,017 adults via telephone, with an oversampling of at least 150 adults in the 10 drought states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, South Carolina and Texas. The national survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level, while the margin of error for each of the state surveys is plus or minus 8 percentage points.
Interest in less water-intensive forms of energy generation comes as nearly two-thirds of Americans — or 64% — indicated that the prospect of shortages of safe drinking water, either from drought or diversion for energy production, is a top concern, second only to worries about food prices. Predictably, a shortage of safe drinking water was the top concern in the drought-stricken states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, South Carolina and Texas, where 63% of respondents indicated that they are “very concerned.”
The impact of droughts on Americans has been pervasive, with about 2 in 5 Americans, or 39%, indicating that they have personally experienced droughts in the past year, with much higher rates in the drought-affected states of Missouri, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado.
Nearly 50% of the water withdrawn in the U.S. is used by thermoelectric power plants. Coal-fired power plants and nuclear reactors use the water for cooling and generation of steam power. Despite greater deployment of renewable energy and a shift away from coal-fired power generation, the Civil Society Institute maintained that the power sector is increasingly water-intensive. Chief among the problems, it said, is the immense use of water for hydraulic fracturing for natural gas production and the continued use of older technology by coal-fired power plants.
Negative impacts on natural ecosystems are also a major concern. Power plants using once-through cooling withdraw huge quantities from rivers and lakes and release the water at higher temperatures, imperiling aquatic ecosystems.
Solo said that despite a mandate by Congress in 2005 for the U.S. Department of Energy to produce a water-energy road map, no action has been taken.
“Seven years later we have neither a road map nor a general understanding of what water resources we do have,” Solo said, highlighting concerns over food security as the energy and agricultural sectors and industrial and residential users compete for water resources. “The fact is we are flying blind today, when we could have had the foundation for a national water-energy plan in place years ago.”
The Civil Society Institute is in favor of phasing out coal-fired power, limiting growth in natural gas and avoiding construction of new nuclear power plants. Solo asserted that renewable energy, in conjunction with ramped-up energy efficiency in homes and businesses, can play a much larger role in the energy mix, substantially reducing the nation’s reliance on coal-fired and nuclear power.
“We have spent years talking about the problems of carbon when it comes to electricity generation, but this summer has been a real game-changer in the sense that sustained high temperatures and drought have put the focus on water,” Solo asserted. “Our new survey shows that citizens want to see a shift from use of water-intensive energy to cleaner, water-friendly alternatives like wind and solar.”