On October 9, the U.S. Department of Energy released a report about the threats posed by climate change to the U.S. electricity and fuels sector, U.S. Energy Sector: Regional Vulnerabilities and Resilience Solutions. Climate change and extreme weather will touch on all parts of the energy sector – water availability for cooling in power plants, the aging grid, water and energy needs for fossil fuel extraction and refining, and water needed to grow biomass feedstocks. Additionally, transport of fuels is vulnerable due to extreme weather events. According to the report, “an accelerated … approach to keep the U.S. energy system reliable and safe” is needed.
While the DOE report notes that a slight increase in temperatures benefits crops, extreme temperatures will be harmful. Higher temperatures also make conditions more favorable for weeds, diseases and pests. The National Climate Assessment (NCA) predicts that extreme weather events in agricultural production areas will increase and include droughts and extreme heat as well as floods. NCA also predicts that climate change will force corn growing to migrate northward, and perhaps other, more drought tolerant crops may be sought for food and fuel production.
Higher temperatures, increasing frequency of droughts and floods will impact the ability to grow biomass crops, particularly in the Midwest and Great Plains. Climate change will impact the region’s ability to grow, refine and transport these feedstocks. Similar to petroleum refining, biomass refineries also require water to produce ethanol. The industry has been extremely efficient in reducing water inputs, but seasonal droughts could still impact refining capacity.
Separately, the Department of Energy has developed Water Assessment for Transportation Energy Resources (WATER). The tool evaluates water consumption that is associated with the production of fuels, including shale gas, corn-based ethanol, soybean biodiesel, corn stover, wheat straw ethanol, perennial grasses and woody fuels, such as wood waste from lumber production. The WATER tool, first developed in 2013 by Argonne, can assist industry, municipalities and policy makers assess the potential water resource impacts of biofuels growth and production. It also assesses the impact to water of conservation measures, such as no-till and conservation tillage.
Crop and biomass production can be water-intensive. While steps have been made in improving water management, understanding the water footprint is critical in that endeavor, and may inform farmer decisions in the future.
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