What Keeps Your Utility Company Up At Night

It's not profits or the end of coal (they're pretty confident about both those things). Rather, it's a dwindling resource that you wouldn't expect.

power lines

There are endless aspects of our energy economy to think about--including an aging power grid infrastructure, the lack of rare earth metals, the need to build more robust transmission lines, and so on. But what we should really be concerned about is water, according to an annual Black and Veatch survey of utility executives. Because when the companies responsible for maintaining our power grid are worried about something, we should all pay attention.

The 700-plus utility executives surveyed by Black and Veatch say that water is a major concern. It has been an issue in the past, but never so much as this year. The concerns are varied: Executives are worried about water pollution from fracking, the amount of water that different forms of energy need for cooling (i.e. nuclear, coal, and even water for washing solar panels), and potential government regulations that would require utilities to cut down on the amount of fish killed when power plants bring in water from rivers for cooling processes.

But even though executives are concerned about water pollution from fracking, they still rank natural gas as the "top environmentally friendly technology," besting nuclear, solar, hydroelectric, and wind power. Last year's survey saw nuclear ranked at the top, but the Fukushima disaster likely gave natural gas the edge.

In the executives' minds, natural gas beats renewable technologies like solar and wind because "the low cost of coal and other competitive fuels, such as natural gas, is regarded by all respondents as the greatest barrier to significantly increased use of renewable energy technologies," according to the survey.

Coal isn't going anywhere, either. Almost 80% of respondents believe that coal will stay part of the U.S. energy mix because of fiscal realities. Only 12.4% believe that "coal is rapidly fading into the past." Hope that those 12% are the ones running the utilities where you live.

Clearly, our growing investment in renewables won't solve our energy woes--at least in the near future. Perhaps it's time to start thinking about new solutions to avoid rising electricity costs--which 70% of survey respondents see on the horizon.

[Image: Modified from the Argonne National Laboratory's Flickr stream]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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1 Comments

  • Tom Gray

    If renewables "won't solve our energy woes--at least in the near future," what will? (Besides, this story started out to be about water.)

    Anyway, for the record, according to the U.S. Department of Energy 20% Wind Energy by 2030 Technical Report, released in 2008 under the Bush Administration, the water savings from generating 20% of America's electricity by 2030 would amount to a cumulative 4 trillion gallons. That's enough water to nearly fill Oregon's Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the U.S., which has a volume of 4.6 trillion gallons. If utility executives don't view wind as the most environmentally friendly technology, it is because they aren't connecting the dots.  Use wind, save water.  It's that simple.--Regards, Tom Gray, Wind Energy Communications Consultant