How Much Water Do Power Plants Use?

Via the Environmental Research Web, an interesting report on the watergy consumption of power plants:

US power plants – in particular their cooling systems – are responsible for more than 40% of the nation’s freshwater consumption. However estimates of how much water is used at individual power plants can vary greatly. What is more, most long-term projection models for power-plant water use lack sufficient data when it comes to different regions of the country.

Water consumption

The development and construction of future power plants will depend, in part, on water availability in a particular region. Understanding how much water is used in different types of plants, be they coal, nuclear or based on renewable sources, will thus be crucial for developers and policymakers alike.

We collected published water-use data from academic literature, state and federal government agencies, non-governmental organizations and industry. We converted these data into a consistent metric of gallons of water use per Megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity generated. This approach allowed us to provide estimates of the amount of water consumed for each type of electricity-generating technology and cooling system.

Our results show that certain low-carbon electricity technologies using recirculating cooling systems, such as concentrating solar power, coal with carbon capture and storage, and nuclear power, can consume more water than conventional technologies like subcritical pulverized coal and natural-gas combined-cycle technologies.

Other low-carbon technologies, like solar photovoltaic and wind, require little to no water to generate electricity.

Dry cooling technologies, which can work for concentrating solar power, geothermal, natural gas, biopower and power from coal, can reduce the amount of water consumed by as much as 90% compared to recirculating cooling technologies. However, these technologies, while reducing overall water usage, might also be less efficient.

The fact that different technologies – such as concentrating solar power, nuclear, coal and geothermal – show large variations in water consumption means that future analyses could yield disparate results if average water consumption values are used in calculations. We are thus currently looking at ways to “standardize” the assumptions behind estimates of water use to reduce such data variability.

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About This Blog And Its Author
As the scarcity of water and energy continues to grow, the linkage between these two critical resources will become more defined and even more acute in the months ahead.  This blog is committed to analyzing and referencing articles, reports, and interviews that can help unlock the nascent, complex and expanding linkages between water and energy -- The Watergy Nexus -- and will endeavor to provide a central clearinghouse for insightful articles and comments for all to consider.

Educated at Yale University (Bachelor of Arts - History) and Harvard (Master in Public Policy - International Development), Monty Simus has held a lifelong interest in environmental and conservation issues, primarily as they relate to freshwater scarcity, renewable energy, and national park policy.  Working from a water-scarce base in Las Vegas with his wife and son, he is the founder of Water Politics, an organization dedicated to the identification and analysis of geopolitical water issues arising from the world’s growing and vast water deficits, and is also a co-founder of SmartMarkets, an eco-preneurial venture that applies web 2.0 technology and online social networking innovations to motivate energy & water conservation.  He previously worked for an independent power producer in Central Asia; co-authored an article appearing in the Summer 2010 issue of the Tulane Environmental Law Journal, titled: “The Water Ethic: The Inexorable Birth Of A Certain Alienable Right”; and authored an article appearing in the inaugural issue of Johns Hopkins University's Global Water Magazine in July 2010 titled: “H2Own: The Water Ethic and an Equitable Market for the Exchange of Individual Water Efficiency Credits.”