Are the world’s two greatest environmental challenges at odds with one another? Climate change compels us to transition rapidly to a low carbon energy future through some combination of energy efficiency, renewable energy, and nuclear power. Meanwhile, looming freshwater shortages – already very real in places like the Middle East and even California – highlight the need to better conserve water.

But do low carbon energy technologies require too much water to be feasible? A panel at the MIT Energy Conference today tackled this question, moderated by MIT’s Ahmed Ghonium and including Colleen Layman (Bechtel Power), Tim Hogan (Alden Research Laboratory), John Maulbetsch (Maulbetsch Consulting), and Jerry Alexander (Siemens).

The answer, basically, is no. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a key challenge that renewable energy advocates will have to answer.

First, a bit of background. As most people are at least vaguely aware, agriculture is a major area of water use, for irrigation. But you might be surprised to learn that in the U.S. we use just as much water to cool power plants as we do for irrigation, according to Ghoniem.

Low carbon energy sources vary dramatically in their water requirements, with sources like geothermal and solar thermal requiring a large amount of water for cooling, and solar photovoltaics and wind requiring very little.

“There are water constraints on all forms of power,” Maulbetsch reminded the audience. “I’m not personally concerned about the water issue constraining the march of this planet toward lower carbon power generation.”

Hogan agreed, noting that in addition to emphasis on energy sources with less water impact, the government should be investing in more R&D to spark new technological innovations in this area.

“Where there’s a will there’s a way,” he said.

Alexander advocated for more educational programs focused around water, noting that “there’s not one university or technical organization that has a curriculum in water treatment.”

Layman noted in closing that while power plants are a key area for water conservation, the issue goes well beyond them.

“The world is going through a water scarcity issue,” she said, pointing to climate change as a contributing factor. “We really need to look more at just managing this precious resource the best we can.”

[Image via MIT]