Alternative Energy Water_Use_in_Steam_Electricity_NREL

Published on November 3rd, 2009 | by Susan Kraemer

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Fossil-Funded Group Succeeds in Spreading Lies About How Much Water Desert Solar Uses

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The Heartland Institute, the infamous fossil-industry-funded climate denier group that faked 500 scientists to deny climate change, is now creating a new fake narrative about water use in utility scale solar.  They did a very thorough job of disseminating their 500 supposed skeptic climate scientists story; as Desmogblog notes – helpfully printing 150,000 copies for distribution across the US including 850 journalists, 26,000 schools, “19,000 leaders and politicians”.

Now they are working on a new disinformation narrative: That solar power uses more water than traditional oil, gas, coal and nuclear power.

Their story is now that Environmentalists Oppose Mojave Desert Solar Power. But the quotes come not from “environmentalists who oppose desert solar power”, but from another fossil-funded think tank. Here’s their false claim about water use (with a bonus false claim about land use):

“With solar power plants having a much larger footprint and demanding more water for power generation than traditional power plants require, battle lines between environmental activist groups are being drawn in the desert sand.”

Solar power plants actually demand less water than traditional power plants. Much, much less:

Water_Use_in_Steam_Electricity_NREL

Water Use in Electricity Generation

As much as 60 times less, according to the  (pdf) Report to Congress on Concentrating Solar Power Commercial Application Study: Reducing Water Consumption of Concentrating Solar Power Electricity Generation.

Of all the kinds of solar power, the one that uses the most water is wet cooled solar thermal trough concentrated solar power. Even this; the most profligate water user of all the utility-scale solar technologies uses 60 times less water than nuclear, 50 times less water than coal, and 20 times less water than gas, per megawatt hour of electricity generated. (And solar also has a much smaller footprint than coal, as Grist writer Gar Lithow demonstrates.)

But battle lines are supposedly being drawn in the sand because of this supposed solar thirst. But who are these environmental groups? Tom Tanton is one.

Environmentalists Oppose Mojave Desert Solar Power:

Tom Tanton, a senior fellow for energy studies at the Pacific Research Institute said,
“It’s not just the construction of the solar farms but the ongoing maintenance of the plants that further encroach on habitats”. Tanton is also disturbed by the preferential treatment wind and solar projects receive.“They already get favoritism in the form of tax credits; they should not get it when it comes to habitat conservation. It’s time to stop extreme favoritism for wind and solar and make them play by the same rules,” Tanton said. “Sacrificing anything, especially endangered species, to enable one of the dumbest modern energy ideas imaginable is anathema,” Tanton added.

While using the catch-phrases of environmentalism (encroach on habitats, habitat conservation, endangered species) note how Tanton’s actual argument here is that (supposedly) un-subsidized traditional electricity is not getting a fair shake.

This assertion doesn’t pass the smell test; when one group of “environmentalists” demands a fair shake for traditional (fossil-fueled) electricity plants.  Climate change will make many species extinct, forget their habitat conservation.

Turns out the quotes actually come from the Pacific Research Institute – which, like The Heartland Institute; is yet another front group funded by Chevron, Exxon and the Koch Foundation.

It is frustrating to see resistance being created to utility-scale solar over cleverly propagated water myths. Yet I always assumed that the environmental resistance was genuine.

Now I am not so sure that at the heart these are not fundamentally astro-turfed movements where we environmentalists are being cynically manipulated by the fossil industry. The Heartland Institute has also put out well propagated myths about wind turbines’ supposed bird kills.

Now the organization has successfully generated an echo in the environmental movement to the effect that solar in the desert uses too much water. There has been a whole spate of articles about desert solar thermal with wild claims about water use.

But since when did we environmental writers get our facts from organizations that work to keep us wedded to fossil fuels? It is sad to see these lies about water use dutifully make the rounds of the environmental blogs as if this is a fact-based objection.

Can people be persuaded that a common good is bad for the environment? People can.



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  • http://solarchargeddriving.com Christof

    Thanks for this myth-buster. I’m going to keep an eye on the mainstream press coverage of this — hope they don’t get sucked in by the myths.

    Of course, while I know concentrated solar is crucial to a renewable energy future, I have to admit that I don’t want it to kill distributive solar on home/business rooftops. Distributive solar is much more democratic, grassroots — and it’s going to allow me to power an EV myself. That’s way more satisfying than saying some huge concentrated solar plant owned by huge company A, B or C is partially powering my car and home.

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  • Peter

    Susan – you need to check you water use numbers and compare the use for each with the SAME method of cooling. The numbers are MUCH closer than you show – sorry

  • Susan Kraemer

    I don’t see the two as exclusive. I want both.

    I do know from personal experiance, having tried to sell residential solar, that it is a very slow way to get big climate reductions – because it is just so hard for most of us to actually come up with the financing.

    Even though we know we can save hundreds of thousands of dollars, and hundreds of tons of carbon…it is frustrating!

  • Scott Callaway

    Just asking a simple question about the water use of utility scale solar thermal plants: What is the requirement for maintaining clean mirror surfaces in these plants? How dusty can the mirrors be and still produce sufficient heat for designed electrical production? Sorry if this has been discussed elsewhere.

  • Peter Johnston

    There is no single solution to the energy problem. However there is plenty of energy to go around if we make use of what is available in different forms.

    I have PV and hot water on my roof and I live in Seattle.

    In Washington and Oregon we have lots of hydro. Arguably not green because of the dams but I’ll take what we have already (as lone as we mitigate the fish migration issues).

    Oregon is good for Wind.
    Washington is good for Geo-thermal.

    If you look across the nation, each state has the ability to generate green energy as long as they look to what’s best locally.

    On the topic of subsidies. We need to address the cap and trade system. Cap and Trade system should be viewed as an end to an unfair subsidy paid to the CO2 producing power utilities. For years they have been dumping their waste into your neighborhood, and not paying the processing and disposal fee. Cap and Trade implements that disposal fee and gets rid of this grossly unfair subsidy those industries have been using to mis-quote their real costs.

    Thanks
    -Peter

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  • Bob Downs

    I don’t know the answer and a biased article like this that is
    presented without any data is pretty meaningless.

    Right now, there is a lot of suspicion on the environmental
    bunch due to the apparent fraud discovered in the U.K. recently.

    So, let us not throw accusations at who a person works for or
    represents…let us see the data so we can make up our own minds.

    I think most folks want to see good alt. energy technologies being developed but they need to be
    practical and cost effective, with all that implies. Everyone knows that at some point we will reach the end of the line for fossil fuels.

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