July 23, 2012
Will Drought Cause the Next Blackout?
Michael E. Webber
About half of the nation’s water withdrawals every day are used for cooling electric generating plants. As the nation suffers the most widespread drought in 60 years, stretching across 29 states, the risk is great that power plants may be forced to shut down, due to the insufficient water flows to serve the cooling function. Oil and natural gas production may be threatened as well, given the millions of gallons of water necessary for hydraulic fracturing, the process used to extract oil and natural gas from shale in several regions of the country. In Texas today, some cities are forbidding the use of municipal water for hydraulic fracturing. The multiyear drought in the West has lowered the snowpack and water levels behind dams, reducing their power output. The U.S. Energy Information Administration recently issued an alert that the drought was likely to exacerbate challenges to California’s electric power market this summer, with higher risks of reliability problems and scarcity-driven price increases. As climate change trends continue and the demand for energy in the U.S. continues to grow, this water vulnerability will become more important over time.