BOSTON - The need to reduce carbon emissions has dominated public debate around clean energy production. But the singular focus on carbon has distracted from energy’s growing impact on the planet’s dwindling water sources, according to a new report from Lux Research.

The report, titled “Global Energy: Unshackling Carbon From Water,” observes that while new energy sources and extraction methods may reduce carbon intensity - kilograms of CO2 emitted per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of useful energy - they often impose increased water usage.

“On a planet where only 0.008 percent of the water is renewable, such trade-offs will become an increasingly important consideration for executives and policymakers,” said Michael LoCascio, a senior analyst at Lux Research, and the report’s lead author. “Fortunately, many of the technologies and approaches needed to reduce water intensity are here today, or on the horizon.”

Lux Research’s report provides an analysis of how all the major conventional and alternative fuel and electricity sources balance their CO2 and water intensity, as well as other important factors like cost and scalability. It also analyzes how alternative energy sources, improved extraction and efficiency, water recycling technologies, and improved energy distribution could help increase the environmental and economic viability for given energy technologies. The report finds that:

• Coal and natural gas electricity sources will continue to dominate in the near term. But expect to see more retrofits and upgrades of existing facilities to make them more water and/or energy efficient. Representative solutions include boiler water treatments, like electrocoagulation, advanced ion exchange and membrane electrolysis, as well as dry condensers and cooling tower water recapture.

• Conventional fossil fuels remain leaders for the next few decades, but expect new extraction technologies. Water recycling technologies like desalination and hydrocarbon recovery could reduce the water- and carbon-intensity of oil extraction from new sources like tar sands.

• Alternative energy sources will grow rapidly, but remain limited overall. The slow roll-out of transcontinental high-voltage DC transmission lines will hinder low-carbon, low-water energy sources like solar and wind. Biofuels use far too much water and are capable of providing too little energy to make up more than a few percent of global needs.

• The future may belong to advanced nuclear electricity. Nuclear is the only low-carbon, low-cost energy source that can reliably meet future electricity needs, but water is its Achilles’ heel. However, advanced designs promise to increase efficiency and reduce water intensity, while placing plants on the coasts decouples them from increasingly scarce fresh water sources.

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Publication date:08/17/2009