New report puts a price on water used to generate electricity in Colorado

In the wake of a recent report showing Colorado will face severe water shortages by 2050, a Boulder-based conservation group has released a study comparing the water consumption of conventional coal-fired power plants to cleaner burning forms of fuel.

Western Resource Advocates’ (WRA) new report, “Every Drop Counts: Valuing the Water Used to Generate Electricity,” found that in Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, power plants consume an estimated 395,000 acre feet of water a year. That’s equal to the municipal water consumption of the cities of Denver, Phoenix and Albuquerque combined.

Alternative forms of energy such as wind turbines, solar and many geothermal plants consume no water at all, making them a better fit in the arid West, where limited water supplies are facing intense competition from agriculture, residential growth, energy extraction, mining and conservation efforts, the report concludes.

“Water and power providers are looking at the same pool of water to meet their future demands. But there isn’t enough water to do both,” WRA energy-water analyst Stacy Tellinghuisen said. “On the bright side, the transition to cleaner energy sources can provide new water supplies for growing cities across the region.”

The report cites the potential water benefits of the Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act, passed by the Colorado Legislature last year. That law compels Xcel Energy, the state’s largest electric utility, to shut down or replace several aging coal-fired power plants on the Front Range, using cleaner burning natural gas or alternative energy sources. The law has been bitterly opposed by the state’s coal-mining industry and several Republican lawmakers as a job-killing measure, but few have focused on the possible water conservation benefits.

WRA’s report predicts Xcel’s plan could save as much as 5,240 acre feet — which would supply water to more than 52,000 people and be worth an estimated $50 million.

“Phasing out the region’s oldest coal plants not only improves air quality, but also frees up scarce water supplies at a critical time,” said John Nielsen, WRA’s energy program director.

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