Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Thirst for Efficiency in Georgia

Georgia, the state famous for questioning the fact of global warming in an era when the majority of states (including our own) are striving to act to prevent and/or cope with it, is moving forward on energy efficiency.

South Carolina should pay attention. The reason is drought -- a reason our state certainly shares with our southern neighbor.

A recent opinion in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution spelled it out:

Flicking a light switch or turning on the bathroom faucet are daily routines that most Georgians perform without a second thought. But this year's drought is making clear the inextricable relationship between water usage and energy consumption, and why it's so important.

Georgia, like every other state, gets most of its electricity from coal-fired and nuclear power plants that require massive amounts of water to prevent them from overheating.

Most of those plants are owned and operated by Southern Company, an Atlanta-based holding company. In addition to Georgia Power, which is the state's largest utility, Southern Company has subsidiaries in Florida and Alabama, where state officials have been feuding with Gov. Sonny Perdue over water.

The company's power plants draw water — averaging about 3.3 billion gallons a day in 2000 — from Georgia rivers including the Chattahoochee, which is also the principal source of drinking water for millions of homes and businesses. The total amount of water withdrawn for electricity generation comprises more than half of the surface and ground water usage for the entire state.

Utility officials contend they've been responsible stewards of the state's liquid resources. In older plants, they say, water is returned directly to the Chattahoochee and elsewhere, while newer plants are designed to use less water throughout the process.

But the facts are somewhat different. Regardless of the technology used, a considerable amount of water is lost either through evaporation or leakage. In both cases, the water returned to the watershed by power plants isn't always available when and where it's needed most.

Southern Company, like every other business in the state, should be put on notice that wasting water will be met with stiff fines. However, smugly pointing the finger at Southern Company or other water guzzlers won't fix the problem.

While praying for rain to refill our parched reservoirs, the more effective and realistic approach is for state officials to get serious about making Georgia more energy efficient, which will also have the salutary effect of reducing our overall water consumption.

Because of our hot and humid climate, Georgia has historically had a higher per capita energy use than other parts of the country. The hotter it gets, the more energy we use — and the more water we waste.

To break that unsustainable cycle in the short term, our leaders could mandate installation of high-efficiency appliances and lights — in addition to low-flow plumbing fixtures — in all new construction.

In the years and decades ahead, Georgia should also take the lead in developing renewable sources of energy, such as solar power, that are less dependent on already overburdened water supplies.

Georgia may not be able to conserve its way out of the current water crisis. But ignoring the connection between saving water and saving energy is no longer an option.

Lyle V. Harris, for the editorial board

It really doesn't need to be pointed out, but South Carolina is also experiencing a terrible drought and South Carolina also gets its its electricity from water-guzzling coal and nuclear plants.

Now one of those utilities, who like the Southern Company, claims to be a good steward of the State's resources, will be adding to the problem if their proposed coal plant project is allowed to go forward. Will Santee Cooper use the water of the Great Pee River, where it plans to build another huge coal plant, responsibly? Not if its behavior with respect to pending legislation that would require permits for large water withdrawls in South Carolina is any indication. Santee Cooper has successfully lobbied for an exemption from this legislative proposal that will allow them to withdraw water without restriction.

Like the author of this editorial opines, our state should be focusing on energy efficiency and renewables -- not coal plants. You've heard this before on this blog, that's because efficiency and renewables are better for our health, better for our environment, better for our economy than coal. But now theres another reason: its better for our state's stressed water supplies.

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