Abundance and Scarcity: The Conflicting Nature of Renewable Technologies

Posted on September 30, 2009. Filed under: News, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , |

The New York Times had a great story yesterday on a very important issue that is sometimes overlooked in all the excitement around renewable energy technologies, particularly solar.

Sunshine is abundant in hot, dry and typically arid places, like the Southwestern United States, making them ideal solar sites for solar power. However, large scale solar power plants require an abundance of another resource, that is often lacking in areas where sunshine is plentiful: water.

In solar thermal plants– a cheaper alternative to solar panels– mirrors and sunlight heat water to create steam. This steam powers turbines and generates electricity. It  must be cooled and recondensed in order to be reused. The cheapest way to cool the steam is with water, butdry cooling is possible–at a higher cost.

In Amargosa Valley, Nevada,  a German company planned to build 2 solar farms, which thrilled residents with the promise of clean energy and green jobs. However, the excitment died down when it was revealed the plants would use 20% (1.3bn gallons) of the valley’s available water annually.

This dilemma is not unique to solar thermal technologies either. As the New York Times sums up:

“Here is an inconvenient truth about renewable energy: It can sometimes demand a huge amount of water. Many of the proposed solutions to the nation’s energy problems, from certain types of solar farms to biofuel refineries to cleaner coal plants, could consume billions of gallons of water every year.

The issue of water scarcity is certainly one that will drive future policy and the development of future technologies. Although water efficient renewable technologies may be less cost competitive now, they may be safer bets in the future.

One venture capital investment firm, VantagePoint Partners Inc,  is already taking water use into consideration for its investments. CEO Alan E. Salzman explained a recent decision to invest in a solar thermal company that is working to make dry cooling less cost prohibitive, 

 “Our approach is high sensitivity to water use…we thought that was going to be huge differentiator.”

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