Peak Water, or Peak Water Withdrawals?

A US Geological Survey (USGS) report released last month, “Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 2010,” surprised many of us in the water research community. According to the report, about 355 billion gallons of water per day were withdrawn for use during 2010, which represented a 13 percent decrease relative to 2005 withdrawals and the lowest level of water withdrawals estimated by the USGS since before 1970. Between 2005 and 2010, thermoelectric power and irrigation, the two largest water users, reduced their withdrawals by 20 percent and 9 percent, respectively. (This is the most recent report in a series that has been published by the USGS since 1950 and represents the longest compilation record of water use data by a US federal agency.)

Based on this finding that water withdrawals have significantly decreased since the last report was released, one might think that our water scarcity woes are over. Some news articles have characterized this report as proof that the US has already reached “peak water” (see, for example, this article). However, it is important to note that the USGS and water researchers in general have a very specific definition for the word “withdrawals.” The report defines withdrawals as “the total amount of water removed from the water source for a particular use, regardless of how much of that total is consumptively used or returned to the hydrologic system for future use.” Consumptive use, in turn, is defined as water removed that is not returned to the hydrologic system, at least for a period of time. As such, consumptive use includes the amount of water transpired by crops during plant growth, water that evaporates from the soil surface of crop land, and water consumed by livestock or humans. With respect to thermoelectric power, consumptive use would include water evaporated or incorporated into byproducts as a result of the production of electricity, but not any water that is returned to rivers and streams after being used for cooling within a power plant.

Quantifying consumption may be as, if not more, important than quantifying withdrawals because consumption actually precludes the subsequent or downstream withdrawal of water for another use. Unfortunately, estimates of consumptive use were discontinued by the USGS after 1995 due to resource and data constraints. So what do we know about recent trends in water consumption in the US? Another recent USGS report, titled “Withdrawal and Consumption of Water by Thermoelectric Power Plants in the United States, 2010,” uses information from the US Department of Energy to show that water consumption by thermoelectric plants decreased by 34 percent between 2005 and 2010. This decrease occurred at the same time that net electrical generation for water-using thermoelectric plants increased by 6.4 percent, so this is good news on the consumption front.

However, much less is known about the other major use of water: irrigation. According to the US Department of Agriculture, irrigation in the United States accounts for approximately 80 percent of the nation’s consumptive water use and over 90 percent in many western states. Furthermore, recent research suggests that water conservation measures in agriculture may actually increase consumption because efficient irrigation technologies reduce return flows and limits aquifer recharge (see, for example, this study and this study). It is quite possible that water consumption has decreased together with withdrawals, but this is not something that can be concluded from the USGS report.

At the same time, research efforts are underway to close this knowledge gap. For example, researchers at the Desert Research Institute in Nevada are developing methods to use remotely sensed data to estimate actual historical agricultural water use. Consumptive use measures from these projects can complement existing USGS estimates on withdrawals so as to provide a more complete characterization of the regions that are at risk of water scarcity and excessive water use.

Finally, it is important to recognize that the reductions in water withdrawals identified in the USGS report are outcomes of a variety of efforts to introduce policies to regulate water withdrawals and encourage water efficiency in all sectors of the economy. Instead of taking these latest withdrawal estimates as an indication to ease up on water management activities, we should interpret them as evidence that our policies are starting to work and that further analysis is needed to ensure that these policies continue to protect our water resources in a cost effective manner.

Resources Magazine: Greening the Global Economy. Roles for Business and Government

An Interview with Linda Fisher12-9 q&a - linda fisher 2

With a career that has taken her to the top levels of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the global company DuPont, RFF Board Member Linda Fisher has worked to progress corporate environmental performance from within and without. Resources recently sat down with Fisher, currently the vice president of DuPont Safety, Health, and Environment and the company’s chief sustainability officer, to explore business and government perspectives on some of the major environmental issues of our time.

Resources: How has your time in government influenced how you approach your current job at DuPont?

Linda Fisher: I would say it’s influenced me in three significant ways. Probably the most obvious is that I have a very keen appreciation of why people at EPA make the decisions they do. I understand the flexibility or inflexibility of the laws and regulations they have to administer and make decisions by. I understand the resource challenges, public pressure, and public perceptions that influence how they might approach public policy issues—or a company like DuPont. This helps me think through how DuPont can best engage and interact with the agency.

Second, because EPA is a government agency, by definition I had to listen carefully to the opinions and information people bring from all sides of an issue. That includes other government agencies, Congress, the NGO community, and a whole range of civil society that has a stake in decisionmaking. I have been able to bring a sensitivity to all those perspectives into DuPont, engaging the company to reach out to constituencies it otherwise might not have realized were important.

A third influence from my time in government is that I have a strong sense of how a company like DuPont can innovate to bring market solutions to the environmental challenges that EPA is grappling with.

Resources: What are some of these innovations, and what business opportunities does DuPont see in the future green economy, if you envision one?

FISHER: The green economy offers huge opportunities for science and innovation-based companies. If you are investing as an industry in new, disruptive technologies, then a carbon-constrained world or a green economy creates the opportunity to grow businesses that might not have been envisioned just a few years ago. But greening the economy does not necessarily offer growth opportunities for companies that are not investing in innovation. This difference in approaches helps explain the tension in how corporate America views green energy, carbon pricing, and other environmental innovations and regulations.

At DuPont, where we pride ourselves on our science and innovation, we see green energy as an opportunity. We are investing in advanced biofuels, improved longevity and efficiency of solar technology, and reduced use of petroleum through improved energy efficiency, to name a few areas.

Resources: The push for a greener economy is being driven by not just regulatory strategies in the United States but markets all across the world. How has being a global company affected DuPont’s environmental strategies?

Fisher: We are tracking what I will call “sustainability trends.” For instance, what are the issues and pressures around water in the countries in which we want to operate? What are the pushes for energy efficiency or more regulation around toxic substances in the past several years? What are the changing trends in product regulation? Many trends have not hit in the United States yet or are hitting in fits and starts—for example, the push for zero waste to landfills. DuPont’s sustainability, product regulatory, and product stewardship teams are the eyes and ears for these kinds of practices, and they bring them back and work with our businesses on them.

We also track regulation as it evolves globally. Around the world, many governments are talking about strict regulation of different technologies, but the question is, when will they act? What will the regulations look like?

DuPont is feeling more market pressure around some of the sustainability metrics, such as the greenhouse gas footprint of our manufacturing process and our water use. We are constantly surveyed by hundreds of companies for the absence or presence of certain chemicals in our products. These are pressures—beyond just regulation— that we face as a corporate producer and seller of goods into the global marketplace.

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RFF on the Issues: Oil price drop and an opportunity; Clean Power Plan comments

Event notice: Register now for “Assessing the Air Quality and Climate Benefits of EPA’s Clean Power Plan,” a joint webinar on December 16 from RFF and the Electric Power Research Institute.

Oil Price Drop and an Opportunity

Oil prices have fallen to $65 per barrel, a drop that has been primarily attributed to a decision by OPEC countries to continue producing more than 700,000 barrels a day above existing market demands. Members including Saudi Arabia are reportedly trying to “knock out US shale producers by driving prices lower than they can afford.”

In a recent blog post, RFF’s Alan Krupnick notes that while the US shale industry is “weathering the price drop well so far,” small private companies may not be able to withstand low oil prices for very long. RFF’s Joel Darmstadter notes in the Washington Post that falling gas prices in the United States provide “an opportunity whose cost would encroach only slightly on our good fortune: an increase in the federal gas tax.”

Clean Power Plan Comments

The public comment period for EPA’s proposed emissions regulations for power plants closed last week. The Clean Power Plan garnered more than 1.6 million remarks from “legislators, industry groups, environmental advocates, and private citizens,” while prompting a number of company-led lawsuits and state-filed amicus briefs.

RFF experts submitted comments on the Clean Power Plan, weighing in on a wide range of topics mentioned in the proposal, as well as potential issues and alternatives that lawmakers should consider as they finalize the regulations. For more on this topic, see RFF’s Expert Forum on EPA’s Clean Power Plan.


This Week in the RFF Library Blog

Each week, we review the papers, studies, reports, and briefings posted at the “indispensable” RFF Library Blog, curated by RFF Librarian Chris Clotworthy.

World Energy Trilemma 2014: Time to get Real — the Myths and Realities of Financing Energy Systems
[From Press Release The report finds that as global energy systems are being placed under increasing strain and as governments limit their spending under tough economic conditions, the ability to invest the US$48 trillion required over the next 20 years into energy could be put in jeopardy, threatening countries’ ability to supply sustainable, reliable, and affordable energy for their people… – via World Energy Council

Air Quality in Europe – 2014 report
This report presents an overview and analysis of air quality in Europe from 2003 to 2012. It reviews progress towards meeting the requirements of the air quality directives and gives an overview of policies and measures introduced at European level to improve air quality and minimise impacts. – via European Environment Agency

Turning over a New Leaf: State of the Forest Carbon Markets 2014
[Ecosystem Marketplace] Though demand for forest carbon offsets grew 17% in 2013, market participants recognize the need to scale up faster in order to curb emissions from deforestation and land-use change. Attendees at Ecosystem Marketplace’s launch of the State of the Forest Carbon Markets 2014 at the World Bank last Friday discussed the policy developments that could guide growth – and how the certification of co-benefits could shape demand. – via Baker & MacKenzie | ecoplanet bamboo | JP Morgan Chase | NewForests

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What to Expect at COP-20 in Lima

This post originally appeared on Robert Stavins’s blog, An Economic View of the Environment.

On Monday, December 1st, the Twentieth Conference of the Parties (COP-20) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) commences in Lima, Peru. Over the next two weeks, delegations from 195 countries will discuss and debate the next major international climate agreement, which – under the auspices of the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action – is to be finalized and signed one year from now at COP-21 in Paris, France.

What to Expect in Lima

Because of the promise made in the Durban Platform to include all parties (countries) under a common legal framework, this is a significant departure from the past two decades of international climate policy, which – since the 1995 Berlin Mandate and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol – have featured coverage of only a small subset of countries, namely the so-called Annex I countries (more or less the industrialized nations, as of twenty years ago).

The expanded geographic scope of the incipient Paris agreement – combined with its emerging architecture in the form of a pragmatic hybrid of bottom-up nationally determined contributions (NDCs) plus top-down elements for monitoring, reporting, verification, and comparison of contributions – represents the greatest promise in many years of a future international climate agreement that is truly meaningful.

A Diplomatic Breakthrough:  The Key Role of the China-USA Announcement

If that confluence of policy developments offers the promise, then it is fair to say that the recent joint announcement of national targets by China and the United States (under the future Paris agreement) represents the beginning of the realization of that promise. From the 14% of global CO2 emissions covered by nations participating (a subset of the Annex I countries) in the Kyoto Protocol’s current commitment period, the future Paris agreement with the announced China and USA NDCs covers more than 40% of global CO2 emissions. With Europe, already on board, the total amounts to more than 50% of emissions.

It will not be long before the other industrialized countries announce their own contributions – some quite possibly in Lima over the next two weeks. More importantly, the pressure is now on the other large, emerging economies – India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Mexico, and Indonesia – to step up. Some (Brazil, Korea, Mexico?) may well announce their contributions in Lima, but all countries are due to announce their NDCs by the end of the first quarter of 2015.

The announced China-USA quantitative contributions are themselves significant. For China, capping its emissions by 2030 (at the latest) plus increasing its non-fossil energy generation to 20% by the same year will require very aggressive measures, according to a recent MIT analysis. For the USA, cutting its emissions by 26-28% below the 2005 level by 2025 means doubling the pace of cuts under the country’s previous international commitment.

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Where Falling Oil Prices May Take Us Next

The world economy has seen a 40 percent drop in oil prices since mid-June, partly because of a recent Saudi Arabia decision to not cut oil production in the face of global oversupply.  This price drop, should it last more than a few months, raises the issue: Will low prices end or seriously diminish the revolution in oil production in the U.S. created by hydraulic fracturing and other related technologies?

In the short term, data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) show that the U.S. industry is weathering the price drop well so far.   The EIA’S weekly oil production report shows that U.S. crude oil output actually increased from last week over the weeks before to its highest level ever: over 9 million barrels per day.  Comparing financial statistics EIA gathered on 30 publicly traded companies operating in tight oil areas for the 3rd quarter of 2013 to those of the third quarter 2014 shows that net income is way up, debt increases are much smaller and return on equity rose from about 7 percent to about 23 percent.  They are also protecting themselves from falling oil prices by hedging.  Nevertheless, what are termed asset impairments rose, which means that companies are writing down the value of the reserves because of lower oil prices.

While these statistics present a fairly rosy picture, not included in the EIA survey are the smaller, privately held companies, whose finances may be less able to withstand low oil prices for very long.  The result may be industry consolidation, a good thing for the environment if you believe that the larger, publicly traded companies are better stewards.

If prices hover in the $60-70 per barrel range for some time more, will the pain eventually be felt in the oil patch?  The relationship between the marginal costs of extracting a barrel of oil and the oil price is key.  There is large variation in well productivity. Even in the most favorable locations.  Thus, the industry says that some wells in the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota, for instance, start to become uneconomic at $70 per barrel, with significant numbers uneconomic at $60.  The  current price is $71, up from $66 a few days ago.

One thing is clear: exploiting tight oil deposits requires a lot of churning, tight oil wells decline in productivity much faster than conventional wells, which means there is a continuous need for financing, drilling rigs, and gathering lines, not to mention railroad cars to transport Bakken oil.  If prices don’t rise soon, this churning will stop.  The major companies, in particular, will be quick to exit when expected rates of return fall below those of other investments.  While localized and even state level economic disruptions will follow, some slow down might have a silver lining for the environment (beyond the slowdown itself), if it allows time for improvements in regulations in places like North Dakota.

But in the longer term, higher oil prices are likely, primarily because of increased population and oil demand in growing developing countries and the limited ability of major supplying countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia to withstand the cut in their revenues.  To help supply this growing demand, as we have said in previous blogs, it makes economic sense for the U.S. crude oil export ban to be lifted.


Resources Magazine: Can Product Labels Nudge Energy Efficient Behavior?

By Richard Newell and Juha Siikamäki.

To minimize costs, consumers looking to purchase a new appliance should give equal weight to the purchase price and the discounted operating cost over the appliance lifetime—that is, they should be willing to pay $1 in increased purchase cost for each dollar of reduced lifetime operating cost of the appliance. But many experts argue that in reality, consumers undervalue energy savings. This results in the classic energy efficiency gap—consumers are reluctant to adopt energy efficiency investments that could save them money down the road.

One possible reason is that understanding the operating cost can be a challenge that involves calculating the daily kilowatt-hour consumption rates of appliances to estimate annual costs and energy consumption per year. To streamline this process, appliance manufacturers are required to provide information about the operating costs of major household appliances through labeling programs, such as EnergyGuide. But do these labels actually encourage energy efficient purchases? And what label features most effectively encourage investment in energy efficiency?

In an experimental study to examine these questions, we evaluated the effectiveness of different energy efficiency labels in guiding households’ energy efficiency decisions. We surveyed 1,248 households and used randomized treatments with alternative energy efficiency labels to see how the label and the information it contains affects households’ willingness to pay for energy efficiency. The labels in Figure 1 on page 16 represent an illustrative subset of the labeling treatments used in the experiment. We sampled respondents who are the owners of single-family homes and asked them to make choices about purchasing a central household water heater.

We found that providing simple information on the cost of operating the appliance was the most important element for encouraging investments in energy efficiency. Information on physical energy use and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions has additional but lesser importance. And labels that endorse or grade appliance models have a substantial impact on encouraging choices with higher energy efficiency, potentially even beyond what makes economic sense.

Energy Efficiency Labels

The current EnergyGuide label (Figure 1, Label D) provides the baseline for most of the treatments we administered. Our experimental approach involves evaluating both the information content and the style of representing the information on the label. We evaluated the use of economic information, physical information on energy use and CO2 emissions, a letter grade indicating efficiency rank, the Energy Star logo, as well as the inclusion or exclusion of the range of energy costs of other, similar appliance options in the market. To evaluate the effectiveness of these attributes, we fielded multiple treatments, which either included or excluded the above information content, to enable us to empirically identify the effect of a specific piece of information.

12-2 can products - chartRead the rest of this article.

Land Conservation and Sea Level Rise—Florida Edition

Source: Ebyabe, Wikimedia Commons

Image: Ebyabe, Wikimedia Commons

If you’re a fan of crime fiction with a dash of humor, you might have read some of Carl Hiaasen’s books—Skinny Dip, Nature Girl, Paradise Screwed, to name three. If so, you’ve probably noticed Hiaasen’s love of nature, specifically the wild and woolly swamps and back woods of south Florida. In early November, Hiaasen wrote an impassioned plea to Floridians in the Miami Herald to vote yes on Amendment 1 in the November 4 elections. Amendment 1, The Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative, was to establish a constitutional amendment that would dedicate 33 percent of revenues from an existing document stamp tax to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund, which acquires land and conservation easements for parks, trails, wildlife habitat, historic sites, wetlands, and more. Hiaasen’s opinion piece must have worked: the Amendment passed resoundingly, with 75 percent of the vote. Only 11 other states have constitutional amendments like this and many are for funds that are quite small. The new initiative in Florida really is noteworthy.

Florida already had the most aggressive land conservation program in the country. Its Florida Forever program, created in 2001, authorized spending of $300 million per year on land acquisitions and conservation easements. Together with the precursor program, Preservation 2000, which operated from 1990-2000 and had similar levels of funding, Florida Forever has protected over 2.5 million acres of land. These spending and acreage totals dwarf the numbers in other states, and 29 percent of Florida’s land area is now protected, a percentage significantly above other states. I’m guessing these facts might come as a surprise to many people who think only of Florida’s densely developed coastal areas and high population growth rate. The purpose of the new constitutional amendment is to restore funding to the program, which in recent years had been diverted to other uses. Passage of the amendment might also come as a surprise, but the track record on conservation ballot initiatives suggests this is no anomaly: between 1988 and 2014, according to the Trust for Public Land’s LandVote database, voters across the country have passed 75 percent of the conservation funding initiatives that have been placed on ballots.

What next then for Florida? Read More

Resources Magazine: Utilities and the US Energy Revolution: Confronting a Shifting Landscape

In an excerpt from his remarks at an RFF Policy Leadership Forum, Chris Crane, president and CEO of Exelon, shares his thoughts on how the electricity industry is responding to major changes in how energy is produced, delivered, and consumed.

On the Natural Gas Boom

Exelon President and CEO Chris Crane with RFF President Phil SharpThe advent of shale gas, as we all know, has been a game changer. Having plentiful, cheap gas is great for the economy and for industry.

That said, it’s caused all of us in the industry to reexamine our investments. Shale gas and renewables have decreased the margins of conventional fuel profits. They have made many coal plants and some nuclear plants less economically viable—to the extent that if we were to build a new generation facility right now, we would build natural gas. The problem is, as an industry, we’re all going to the same fuel source again. So fuel diversity is an important consideration for maintaining competitiveness—one that the independent grid operators should keep in mind as they design their capacity markets.

Take, for example, this past winter, when we saw a noticeable shift from oil to natural gas for heating homes. We had to move more generation to natural gas to meet demand during a very cold period. Home heating became the top priority. If you disrupt gas to a large population, just the time to relight the pilot lights could have a significant effect. This winter our transmission was constrained, and there were natural gas plants—including some of our own—that failed to meet demand. As a result, there was a dependency on some of the old coal units that are about to retire to be able to meet the load during that period.

By contrast, if we load the core of a nuclear plant and fuel it to run 18–24 months, it does not matter what the weather is like outside—that plant runs, so it’s highly reliable. It can support the needs of the grid in stress periods. I think the market design must compensate assets for their capability around that. If a natural gas plant has a dual-fuel mix with oil storage to meet those peak capacity needs, it should have a compensation mechanism.

On Renewables and Distributed Energy

Exelon has a small distributed generation business. It is a customer-facing product that we offer to our larger industrial customers who receive gas and electricity now, but if they want solar panels, we will install them. We also are doing a deep evaluation of fuel cells, as we look at potentially expanding our business line. For example, I have spent time at the Toshiba research facility in Yokohama, Japan, learning more about how its engineers are perfecting the manufacturing and efficiency of fuel cells for the residential level. Researchers at Bloom Energy in San Jose, California, are doing fantastic work on their industrial-scale solid oxide fuel cells, which are much larger. So technology is advancing, but we need to design a system that is reliable and fair to all consumers.

Exelon is piloting a microgrid with the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, and the focus of the project is on reliability. If the grid goes down, the hospitals, the University of Chicago, a very important police command center, and other critical infrastructure would isolate from the grid, and the distributed generation would pick up and run. That’s a neat concept. It’s all about reliability and security. There is a defense mechanism in there, but at the end of the day, that customer base still needs to be attached to a larger grid to provide economic-scaled generation.

On Subsidies and Customer Choice

People should have choice, but it should be understood that we cannot continue to subsidize everything. When customers want to have a microgrid, that should be facilitated for them within the regulatory framework and the utility’s suite of products that they offer. Consumers can then decide from there.

Likewise, if you put a solar panel on your roof, that is your choice. If you have excess power and want to sell that power back to the grid, that’s fantastic for the grid, but what has to happen to enable that? The design of the local distribution system has to handle the voltage fluctuations. Every customer has a specific service capacity. If a family has a 200-amp service entrance on their house, that utility distribution system needs to be designed to provide them 200 amps at any instantaneous moment they want. Just because they install a solar panel does not mean they are disconnecting from the grid. There’s a dependency, but there should be an enabling on the grid to allow for solar, and the consumer should be compensated at the wholesale price of energy.

Read the rest of this article.

This Week in the RFF Library Blog

Each week, we review the papers, studies, reports, and briefings posted at the “indispensable” RFF Library Blog, curated by RFF Librarian Chris Clotworthy.

Using Recent Land Use Changes to Validate Land Use Change Models
[Executive Summary] Economics models used by California, the Environmental Protection Agency,and the EU Commission all predict significant emissions from conversion of land from forest and pasture to cropland in response to increased biofuel production. The models attribute all supply response not captured by increased crop yields to land use conversion on the extensive margin. – via Iowa State Univ., Center for Agricultural and Rural Development / by Bruce A. Babcock and Zabid Iqbal

Efficiently Energizing Job Creation in Los Angeles
[Abstract] This report seeks to estimate the magnitude of job-creation benefits for 18 energy efficiency programs administered by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) in 2014. The study finds the job-creation benefits for these programs are large in both absolute and relative terms, especially when compared to other energy sector investments. Not only are these programs local job creators, but they are also benefiting a diverse set of LADWP customers in energy and economic savings. – via UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs / by J.R. DeShazo, Alex Turek, Michael Samulon

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