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Characterizing generation mix and virtual water for resilience to drought on the western U.S. power grid

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There is growing concern over the future availability of water for electricity generation. Because of a rapidly growing population coupled with an arid climate, the Western United States faces a

There is growing concern over the future availability of water for electricity generation. Because of a rapidly growing population coupled with an arid climate, the Western United States faces a particularly acute water/energy challenge, as installation of new electricity capacity is expected to be required in the areas with the most limited water availability. Electricity trading is anticipated to be an important strategy for avoiding further local water stress, especially during drought and in the areas with the most rapidly growing populations. Transfers of electricity imply transfers of "virtual water" - water required for the production of a product. Yet, as a result of sizable demand growth, there may not be excess capacity in the system to support trade as an adaptive response to long lasting drought. As the grid inevitably expands capacity due to higher demand, or adapts to anticipated climate change, capacity additions should be selected and sited to increase system resilience to drought. This paper explores the tradeoff between virtual water and local water/energy infrastructure development for the purpose of enhancing the Western US power grid's resilience to drought. A simple linear model is developed that estimates the economically optimal configuration of the Western US power grid given water constraints. The model indicates that natural gas combined cycle power plants combined with increased interstate trade in power and virtual water provide the greatest opportunity for cost effective and water efficient grid expansion. Such expansion, as well as drought conditions, may shift and increase virtual water trade patterns, as states with ample water resources and a competitive advantage in developing power sources become net exporters, and states with limited water or higher costs become importers.

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  • 2013