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Friday, December 3, 2010

Energy’s Water Demand: Trends, Vulnerabilities, and Management

Nicole T. Carter
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

The nation’s energy choices embody many tradeoffs. Water use is one of those tradeoffs. The energy choices before Congress represent vastly different demands on domestic freshwater. The energy sector is the fastest-growing water consumer in the United States, in part because of federal policies. Much of this growth is concentrated in regions that already have intense competition among water uses. Whether the energy sector may exacerbate or alleviate future water tensions is influenced by near-term policy and investment decisions. These decisions also may determine whether water will limit U.S. capacity to reliably meet the nation’s energy demand. Part of the energy-water policy issue for Congress is identifying the extent of the federal role in responding to energy’s growing water demand. Currently, the energy industry and states have the most responsibility for managing and meeting energy’s water demand.

The energy sector’s water consumption is projected to rise 50% from 2005 to 2030. This rising water demand derives from both an increase in the amount of energy demanded and shifts to more water-intense energy sources and technologies. The more water used by the energy sector, the more vulnerable energy production and reliability is to competition with other water uses and water constraints. Climate change impacts that alter water patterns may exacerbate this vulnerability in some regions.

While energy’s water demand is anticipated to rise across the United States, the West is likely to experience some of the more significant constraints in meeting this demand. Local or regional competition for water often is what makes energy’s water demand significant. These local water resources are often consumed to support not only local energy demand but also national demand. Examples of regional water consumption concerns related to energy are shale gas production using hydraulic fracturing in many regions across the nation, solar electricity generation in the Southwest, and biofuel production in the High Plains. A significant challenge in contemplating a federal response to energy’s water demand is that the responses available are not equally needed, attractive, or feasible across the United States.

The 112
th Congress may see energy’s water demand raised in a variety of contexts, including oversight and legislation on energy, environment, agriculture, public lands, climate, and water issues. Alternatives for addressing energy’s water demand range from maintaining the current approach to taking a variety of targeted actions. One option is to minimize the growth in energy’s freshwater use (e.g., through promotion of water-efficient energy alternatives and energy demand management), which could be accomplished through changes to broad policies or legislation targeted at water use. Another option is to improve access to water for the energy sector. While water allocations and permits generally are a state responsibility, limited federal actions are possible. An additional option is investing in data and research to inform decision making and to expand water-efficient energy technology choices. These policy approaches can be combined. They represent different potential roles and expenses for government, the energy sector, and energy consumers. Legislation considered in the 111th Congress proposes actions that fall under many of these options, including provisions in H.R. 469, H.R. 2454, H.R. 3598, H.R. 1145, S. 1462, S. 1733, S. 3396, and Subtitle IV of P.L. 111-11 (H.R. 146), the Secure Water Act of 2009. .

Date of Report: November 24, 2010
Number of Pages: 40
Order Number: R41507
Price: $29.95

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