Power Plants are Thirsty

energywaterconsumption

Decisions made today about which power plants to build, which to retire, and which energy or cooling technologies to deploy and develop matter. Understanding how these choices affect water use and water stress will help ensure that the dependence of power plants on water does not compromise that resource, the plants themselves, or the energy we rely on them to provide.

The power plant portfolios of U.S. companies have widely varying water-use and carbon profiles.

Currently, the three leading players in the ‘energy game’ are coal, natural gas, and nuclear power. Combined, they were responsible for almost 90 percent of the energy produced in 2012. The dirtiest of the three is the burning of coal due to its enormous output of greenhouse gases. And yet, the process shares more in common with nuclear power than one would think, as they both use enormous amounts of water.

By the numbers, coal-fired power plants and nuclear power plants are nearly neck in neck when it comes to gallons of water required to produce a megawatt-hour of energy (enough to power 1,000 houses for an hour).

Type of Power Plant

Number of
Facilities

Percent of Energy
Produced in 2012

Gallons of water
used per megawatt-hour of electricity

Wind

114

3.46%

0

Solar Photovoltaic

30

0.11%

26

Natural Gas

493

30%

198

Nuclear

104

19%

672

Coal

600

37%

687

The water intensity of these energy resources brings us face-to-face with the realities of energy and water overconsumption. High electricity consumption means more water withdrawals, placing extra strain on the water system. At the same time, emissions from power plants contribute to climate change and temperature spikes, which increases the amount of water required to produce more energy creating possible droughts.

Why is this a problem? Our water supplies are unlimited, right? WRONG.

We are currently trapped in a vicious cycle when it comes to our energy. The method that we deem to be greener “natural gas” uses a significantly smaller amount of water but we currently do not have enough of these facilities to power the entire United States, meaning that we have to invest in new programs which costs money and takes time. Our water supplies are on a ticking clock; eventually, we’ll run out of time.

There are low-water options in our future: renewable energy and energy efficiency.  For now, however, we must continue to conserve water while pushing towards the best available energy technologies for our states.  The more we invest in energy efficiency, the more we cut our overall energy use — saving enormous amounts of water and reducing harmful power plant emissions. After all, the cleanest source of energy is the energy (and water) we don’t use.

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