How Energy uses Water

Tonight there is a great Midwestern thunderstorm in the sky. Lightning bolts are flashing, and the rain is pouring down. This has put me in a mood of wonderment at the awesome power of the Heavens, and has 'sparked' my curiosity regarding the relationship between electricity (lightning) and water (rain). While there can be rain without lightning and lightning without rain, the combination of the two is a fairly common occurrence lately, and provides a 'striking' illustration of the connections between these two powerful forces that are so critical to human existence. Unlike in thunderstorms, where water and electricity happily co-exist, humans current methods of energy production often use vast amounts of water, a rapidly dwindling resource. Let us take a look at some forms of energy production, and the water useage associated with each. We will then take a look at Jewish tradition for perspective on how water and energy are connected, and for guidance on how we should treat these precious resources.

Beyond thunderstorms, hydroelectric dams are another obvious symbol of the connections between water and energy. Hydroelectric dams use gravity to convert water into energy, by using the fall of the water to turn electrical turbines (engines). Hydroelectric dams, however, have the negative environmental side-effects of flooding arable lands and blocking the natural course of rivers, which upsets fish migrations. Hydroelectric dams also produce significant amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, and in some cases produce more of these greenhouse gases than power plants running on fossil fuels. For example, a 1990 study found the greenhouse effect of emissions from the Curuá-Una dam in Pará, Brazil, was more than three-and-a-half times what would have been produced by generating the same amount of electricity from oil. This is because large amounts of carbon tied up in trees and other plants are released when the reservoir is initially flooded and the plants rot. Then after this first pulse of decay, plant matter settling on the reservoir's bottom decomposes without oxygen, resulting in a build-up of dissolved methane. This is released into the atmosphere when water passes through the dam's turbines. Thus while hydroelectric energy does not destroy water in the way some other energy generating technology does, it still requires large amounts of water in order to function, and has other negative envirnomental consequences.

Thermoelectric power generation requires the use of vast amounts of water, through the use of steam-driven turbine generators. Production of electrical power results in one of the largest uses of water in the United States and worldwide. In 2005, about 201,000 million gallons of water each day (Mgal/d) were used to produce electricity (excluding hydroelectric power). Surface water was the source for more than 99 percent of total thermoelectric-power withdrawals. Thermoelectric-power withdrawals accounted for 49 percent of total water use, 41 percent of total freshwater withdrawals for all categories, and 53 percent of fresh surface-water withdrawals. U.S. power plants use seven times as much water each day as all home uses combined. And the largest single users of electricity? The nation's water treatment plants and water pumping stations. Thus, electricity and water are intimately linked in ways that we typically ignore.

Nuclear energy, too, is a huge user of water resources. One typical U.S. nuclear power plant uses 30 million gallons of cooling water an hour. The whole city of New York uses 46 million gallons of water an hour, so a single nuclear power plant needs water flow that would support a city of about 5 million people (about as many as live in the Washington metro area). And the U.S. has 104 nuclear power plants–more than any other country, a quarter of all plants worldwide. Water is one of the hidden, rarely discussed environmental costs of nuclear power plants. Water, in the form of steam, is typically what's used to turn the heat from the nuclear reaction into energy–with a turbine. Nuclear power plants also use water to help shield the reactor core from the rest of the facility, and the rest of the world. This is because water cannot be made radioactive. It simply won't absorb the waves of neutrons being put out by the reactor cores. It's in part why nuclear power plants use water right inside the reactor. It's why "spent" nuclear fuel is typically stored immersed in pools of water. The water keeps the fuel cool, but equally valuable, it is a great radiation shield.

Hydro-fracking is another water intensive means of generating energy that has rightly attracted the condemnation of environmentalists. Slick water hydrofracking is different from conventional natural gas drilling in a couple of ways. First, slick water hydrofracking uses significantly more water than conventional drilling, as well as a “slick water” mixture that is pumped into the shale to fracture the rock and release the gas. Second, there is an increased potential for toxicity and its long-term impacts. Finally, there is the environmental impacts of the drilling: surface and subterranean damage including forestland loss, multiple well sites, groundwater and surface water contamination, habitat and species disturbance, and likely an increased number of access roads to the well sites. Slick water hydrofracking involves a process that utilizes 6-8 million gallons of freshwater per fracking (though this varies with the depth of the shale and the gas deposits), and sand or other lighweight “proppants” (substances used to prop open the fissures caused by the well bore to allow the gas to seep through the pores in the shale). Following the injection of both the water and the proppant, several chemical-based additives are used to create a more efficient and economic process. Some of the chemical additives frequently used include: diesel fuel, biocides, benzene (an additive to gasoline and industrial solvent), and hydrochloric acid. Companies employing this method of natural gas extraction have resisted efforts to require disclosure of what chemicals and in what amounts they use, only assuring us they these chemicals are used in “small amounts”. However, “small amount” is generally unspecific, and some of these chemicals (especially benzene) are harmful at any level of exposure, even toxic at an exposure level of only parts per trillion. This matters because if any of these chemicals were to mingle with the water table, under which lies the shale with a layer of bedrock in between, it is likely that the water table would become contaminated, causing huge health consequences. Additionally, how companies are containing the slick water post-fracking varies from company to company, sometimes with a great potential for soil and groundwater contamination. It is pretty obvious that hydrofracking is an extremely water-intensive method of energy production. As I have written about previously, Israel is facing a critical juncture regarding whether or not to allow hydrofracking on its land.

You might think that solar power (being a 'green' and renewable energy source) would be a good source of energy that doesn't require large amounts of water. You would be wrong in this assumption. In fact, some of the most widely used and economical solar-energy technologies require significant amounts of water; as much as or more than the coal, natural-gas or nuclear power plants the solar projects are meant to replace. The sites most attractive for solar power plants — the wide open plateaus and deserts, are also some of the hottest, driest parts of the world. We can now see that the needs of human civilization for energy are inherently connected to the finite resource of water. Simply put, without water, we wouldn't have life or energy.

In fact, it is wind energy that uses the least amount of water than almost every other form of power generation technology. Other water-friendly forms of power generation include PhotoVoltaic solar power and wave power. These forms of energy production, while showing enormous growth and potential for future growth, are however still too new and small in scope to be able to provide for all our current energy needs.

Our Jewish tradition, in its infinite wisdom, recognizes water as the indispensable medium that connects humanity to the G-dly realm (of infinite energy). The Shema prayer (quoting Deut 11) reinforces the idea that if we act properly, we will be rewarded with rain (in the proper times and amounts), but if we disobey the commandments, we will be punished by a witholding of rain. The words of Torah are likened to water in Isiah 55:1, as it is written, "O all who thirst, come for water." Jewish tradition also equates the thirst of the Jews for water while in the desert of Shur to a lack of connection with the Torah, and thereafter instituted the tradition of reading the Torah on Mondays, Thursdays, and Shabbat, so that the Jewish people should never go more than 3 days without reading the Torah (Babylonian Talmud, BavaKama 82a). Additionally, when the Romans forbade Torah study after the defeat of the Bar Kochbah rebellion, Rabbi Akiva continued to teach Torah at the risk of his life. When a fellow Jew Papus asked him why he put himself in peril, Rabbi Akiva answered with a parable:

A hungry fox, standing on the riverbank, called out to the fish, "Fish, why do you subject yourself to such a dangerous existence? Don't you know that a little further down there are fishermen just waiting to catch you? Join me on the river-bank and you will be safe." Replied the fish, "What you say about the fisherman might be true. But if I am not immersed in the water, then surely I will die. My only chance to live is if I am in the water despite its peril."

Just as fish cannot live without water, Jews can not survive spiritually without Torah. Jews need Torah as much as humans need water. By cherishing and sustaining Torah learning, we develop a connection to the divine realm. Similarly, water can be used to create energy. However, water is limited in abudance unlike Torah study, which is unlimited in its vastness. We must therefore only use water carefully and sparingly in energy production if we are to insure our water and energy needs for future generations. We must therefore cherish, protect, and preserve our water resources in order to physically survive on the Earth, just as we must retain our connection to Torah as the source of our spiritual survival. For if we continue to forsake our dwindling freshwater supplies in order to generate energy (aka 'power'), we would be as foolish as the fish in Rabbi Akiva's parable, had he listened to the tempting but deceitful promises of the fox. For true power comes only from the ultimate divine source, and not through selfish energy consumption that destroys our most precious gift of life-giving water.

One final fact that blows my mind — two teams of astronomers have discovered the largest and farthest reservoir of water ever found in the universe. It’s 12 billion light years away, and holds at least 140 trillion times the amount of water in all the Earth’s oceans combined. Perhaps Earth is only a drop in the cosmic bucket. Nevertheless, I don't think its likely we will be accessing that water anytime soon, so we would do best to treasure the water we have been given here on earth. L'Mayim!

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