Guest Column | May 4, 2015

A Promise To Our Children To Save Water In Texas

Kate Zerrenner

By Kate Zerrenner

Earlier this week, I testified at a hearing of the Texas House Committee on Environmental Regulation, specifically on how Texas will respond to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) proposed Clean Power Plan (CPP), the nation’s first-ever limit on carbon pollution from existing power plants. But before I went to the Capitol, my three-year-old daughter asked me where I was going. I told her I was going to work, and she asked me, “Mommy, what are you going to save?” I replied that I was going to save water, and she said, “Good job, Mommy.”

That’s exactly what the CPP could do for Texas: save millions of gallons of water each year by encouraging the state to switch from polluting power sources (like coal plants) to non-polluting sources (such as wind and solar farms) and increase no-water solutions like energy efficiency.

Virtuous cycle

It’s no secret that Texas is currently in the midst of a multi-year drought – yet the vast majority of our electricity comes from sources that contribute to this prolonged drought, namely coal, nuclear, and natural gas. All of these energy sources require copious amounts of water to produce electricity.

Wind and solar energy, however, consume little to no water and generate negligible carbon emissions. Texas is already an international wind power leader and has the greatest solar potential in the country, much of which is still untapped. In fact, we’re falling behind states like New Jersey and New York.

But the cheapest, cleanest, most water-free energy is the kind we don’t use at all. Texas was the first state to adopt an energy efficiency target, yet it has since fallen in national rankings. Again, there is a lot of untapped potential.

By shifting from water-intensive coal plants to water-free wind and solar farms, Texas can free up more water for other needs, such as cities and agriculture, and reduce the need for new, energy-intensive water supply projects, like traditional desalination plants.

The role of natural gas

Switching to more natural gas is another way Texas can meet the CPP requirements while cleaning our air and reducing our water consumption. Natural gas produces about half the amount of carbon pollution than coal when burned, although methane leakage must be addressed to ensure it is providing carbon mitigation. Plus, efficient natural gas uses, on average, one-third as much water as coal power plants do.

According to an analysis by University of Texas, replacing Texas coal-fired power plants with cleaner natural gas plants could reduce annual freshwater consumption by 53 billion gallons per year, or 60 percent of Texas coal power’s entire water footprint.

Savings add up

According to EDF’s own calculations, by transitioning away from business-as-usual toward cleaner energy, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages roughly 90 percent of Texas’ power grid, could save more than 60,000 acre-feet (or nearly 21 billion gallons) of water per year by 2030.

To think of this another way, ERCOT would save the equivalent of Lady Bird Lake in a little over a month; Lake Bastrop in three months; Lake Worth in six months; Lake Houston in a year-and-a-half; and the entire body of the San Antonio River (which is currently less than four percent full) in four years.

Benefit to communities of color

Overall air quality and public health benefits will also be realized as Texas transitions to clean energy to comply with the CPP because these resources produce zero or negligible emissions to generate electricity and can displace dirty power plants. This is particularly important given that approximately 68 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant (with similarly large numbers for Latinos) and a recent study claims that nearly 40 percent of communities of color breathe polluted air.

Further, three of the top 11 U.S. cities in severe water-stressed areas are in Texas: El Paso, San Antonio, and Houston – all of which are relying more and more on clean energy to power their local economies. El Paso, at 82 percent Hispanic, is the most Latino major city in the country and is retiring its coal plants to make way for the new clean energy economy. San Antonio and Houston, with Hispanic populations of 63 percent and 44 percent, respectively, have also put a greater emphasis on clean energy to help improve air quality and protect against water scarcity.

A transition to clean energy would not only help offset health costs in Texas by keeping more money in the wallets of hard-working Americans, but it could also improve water availability for our growing cities.

Vote for energy and water reliability

Safeguarding energy and water reliability means we are ensuring Texas continues to grow and draw businesses to our state. That’s why it’s critical Texas officials take advantage of the flexibility to create a Texas-made plan to comply with the CPP. The state has much more to gain by taking steps early to develop potential components to a state plan than if the state does nothing until a final rule is released this summer. Doing nothing will cost Texas the ability to develop a plan that reflects Texas’s policy preferences, maximizes cost-effectiveness, and provides regulatory certainty for power companies and businesses.

Currently making its way through the Texas legislative session is competing regulation regarding whether Texas will develop a path to comply with the CPP. While one bill would prohibit Texas from complying, another bill, sponsored by Vice Chair Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin), supports compliance and calls for state officials to act.

Promise to protect

If Texas officials do not take meaningful, thoughtful action during this session, we will likely be left with a plan devised by EPA, one that will not be tailored to Texas’ preferences, which is a shame, because the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has some smart people, who understand Texas’ resources inside and out.

As state Representatives and Senators go to cast their vote, I ask them to take a stance and develop a “for-Texas, by-Texas” approach to complying with the Clean Power Plan.

I’ll keep my promise to my daughter, and our leaders will keep their promise to protect all of Texas’ children.

From Environmental Defense Fund's Texas Clean Air Matters Blog.