The Realities Of Solar-Energy Production

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With its 300-plus days of sunshine annually, Arizona would seem a perfect place to produce solar power. Elected officials and solar developers alike are touting the positive effects of solar power in Arizona and the nation - claiming it will create hundreds of thousands of “green” jobs and replace energy production using fossil fuels with carbon-free energy.

Both federal and state governments have enacted policies to accelerate the deployment of solar energy in Arizona, including subsidies and a state requirement that utilities produce a certain percentage of their power from “renewable” energy.

The reality, however, is not that simple. While Arizona enjoys abundant sunshine, it is also burdened with limited water resources. Conventional concentrating solar power (CSP), the solar technology of choice for utility-scale solar-power generation, requires billions of gallons of water to produce electricity. It is, in fact, the most water-intensive method of all thermal energy produced today, consuming nearly twice as much water per megawatt hour as a coal-fire power plant.

I recently prepared a report about the potential water-energy crisis in Arizona, developing as a result of the rush to deploy water-intensive solar production in the state.

Nearly all of the current federal applications for solar projects in Arizona call for conventional CSP, and at least one of these projects is being “fast-tracked” through the environmental-review process. If all of these projects are built, it would require 151,720 acre-feet of water per year, enough water to serve 606,880 Arizonans. These projects will have long lives - at least 30 years - so it’s necessary that we account for their impact on our state’s water supply. Moreover, much of this power produced with Arizona water will not even be used by the state’s own residents but will instead be exported to California, which has already recognized solar power’s potential to be a water guzzler and now forces its solar developers to use less water-intensive technologies or wastewater. Arizona has yet to take such steps and must consider doing so.

Arizona, however, can still be the solar capital of the world if we focus on more responsible solar technologies that use far less water and develop advanced utility-scale technologies that will be cost-competitive with fossil fuels. Some companies are already deploying CSP in California and Nevada using a “dry-cooling” process - and could do the same in Arizona. Our universities - the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory Mirror Lab and Arizona State’s Global Institute of Sustainability - are also pioneering new, promising technological alternatives; but, unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Energy has yet to recognize or provide the critical support needed to help make these alternatives a reality.

Rushing to deploy conventional CSP will have unintended consequences that its proponents may regret. Many Arizonans will remember the rush to develop corn-based ethanol as an alternative fuel. After billions were spent on federal subsidies, the science now shows that growing corn for fuel is not so “green” after all. Even one of ethanol’s top champions, former Vice President Al Gore, who promoted it as a carbon-friendly alternative to gasoline, now admits it was all a “mistake.”

While it’s true that Arizona’s sunny climate is ideal for solar-energy production, its arid landscape poses significant challenges to the deployment of solar systems that rely more heavily on water than other forms of energy production.

The water-consumption requirements of current solar-energy production could put considerable additional strain on Arizona’s already limited water supply. It should not be used to generate power exported to California and other states.

State and federal policymakers should ensure that energy policy takes these factors into account in order to protect Arizona’s limited water supplies.

Sen. Jon Kyl is the Senate Republican Whip and serves on the Senate Finance and Judiciary committees. Visit his Web site at www.kyl.senate.gov or his YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/senjonkyl.

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