Continued from page 1

Shortages in the South

Although water shortages in the American West have been anticipated for years, the report found that the areas most likely to experience power outages caused by water stress were the Southeastern states of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina. In those states, periodic droughts cause low river flows and high water temperatures, either of which can force utilities to cut back on power generation.

“Water is increasingly becoming a limiting factor on U.S. energy production,” said Melissa Whited, an economist at the Civil Society Institute. Because power plants consume so much water, they increasingly are “at the heart of controversies” in communities plagued by power shortages, she said.

China is even more strapped for water to generate electricity. More than 70 percent of China’s coal-fired power plants are in areas prone to water shortages, and the Asian giant has plans to double power generation in desert regions in the west and north where water is also scarce.

China “is likely to face significant water constraints and conflicting water interests between population and industry” in coming years, said Paul Reig, an analyst with the World Resources Institute. China’s power companies will have to develop techniques such as air cooling and wastewater recycling if they hope to stay in business, he said.

One ray of hope in desert regions like western China and the U.S. is the increasing viability of solar and wind power, which use little water. The International Energy Agency predicts that water constraints will force the U.S., China and India to rely increasingly on such technologies for power generation.

Water and shale drilling

In the U.S., the mandate to include about 10 percent of corn-based ethanol in each gallon of gas also has indirectly stepped up energy demands on water supplies in the Midwest, which grows much of the corn, a particularly water-thirsty crop.

Perhaps the most far-reaching problem stemming from water scarcity lies in Texas and other areas of the arid West where large fields of shale oil and gas have been discovered. Extraction of oil and gas from shale requires vast quantities of water — as much each year as is used by a city of 5 million people, the Environmental Protection Agency calculates.

But such ample water resources are not available in West Texas, where a drought has left some reservoirs nearly empty. That has posed a threat to developing the Wolfcamp shale wells and other sizable shale formations there.

Energy analysts are optimistic, however, that the innovative U.S. energy firms that pioneered shale extraction will find ways to get around the water constraints through recycling and other techniques.

In a promising development, Apache Corp. and a few other shale specialists have reported success at using brackish water for fracking their shale wells. Brackish water is more plentiful in the regional aquifers.

Apache also says it is treating and recycling its fracking water to eliminate the need for fresh water, in a process that is cheaper than disposing of the water entirely. The development has been heralded as a breakthrough in the fracking industry.

The efforts of fracking pioneers in the U.S. are being watched around the world. A report by the energy consulting firm Wood Mackenzie found that more than half of all shale resources worldwide are in areas where water is scarce, and the problem particularly plagues China, which has the world’s largest known reserves of shale gas.

“If shale gas production is really to take off globally,” the water scarcity problem must be resolved, said Tara Schmidt, a Wood Mackenzie analyst.