Burning Rivers: How Coal And Nuclear Are Sucking Up Our Fresh Water

The 20th century was characterized by the frenzied acquisition, storage, and use of oil. But many experts believe that the 21st century will be remembered as the century of water.

One of the most alarming emerging issues is the symbiotic — and often conflicting — relationship between electricity generation and water.

A new report called “Burning Our Rivers: The Water Footprint of Electricity” details this relationship, illustrating the massive amounts of water resources used for electricity generation — particularly from fossil fuels and nuclear.

An average U.S. household’s monthly energy use (weighted by cooling technology and fuel mix) requires 39,829 gallons of water, or five times more than the direct residential water use of that same household…. Electricity—as we generate it today—depends heavily on access to free water. The impact to our freshwater resources is an external cost of electrical production. What the market considers ‘least cost’ electricity is often the most water intensive.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 53 percent of all the fresh surface water withdrawn for human consumption in 2005 was used for electricity generation.

While consumption in the U.S. is falling, coal is still the most dominant source of power in the country. It is also the single largest consumer of water resources:

A MWh of electricity generated by coal withdraws approximately 16,052 gallons and consumes approximately 692 gallons of water…. On average (a weighted average taking into account the current mix of cooling technologies being used at coal plants in the U.S.), coal-fired electricity requires the withdrawal of approximately 13,515 gallons and the consumption of 482 gallons of water per MWh for cooling purposes.

The water not used directly for power generation is used in mining coal and other treatment before burning, creating millions of gallons of “sludge” that can potentially pollute freshwater supplies.

Nuclear power is not much better:

Similar to coal-fired power plants, nuclear power plants traditionally operate with single-cycle cooling technologies, which are systematically more water intensive than all other thermodynamic cooling technologies. Additionally, because nuclear fission is less thermodynamically efficient than the combustion of coal, the water required to generate nuclear power is slightly greater than that of coal-fired power.

According to the report, Nuclear power plants “(withdraw) approximately 14,881 gallons and (consume) 572 gallons of water per MWh.” Large amounts of water are also used in the uranium mining process and for storage of fuel rods. In Georgia, for example, two large nuclear power plants use more water than all the water used by people living in Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah combined.

Non-fossil fuel power alternatives offer some hope for decreasing our water consumption. Increasing the penetration of photovoltaic solar and wind power “to 40% of the grid would … reduce consumptive water use by 11%.” However, we must be careful not to assume that all green power sources are water efficient. “Every day, approximately 9 billion gallons of water— enough to meet the daily demands of more than 50 million Americans—evaporates from reservoirs behind hydroelectric dams.”

Water and energy are mutually dependent resources. There will always be trade-offs for various energy technologies. But if we want to get serious about reducing our demand for precious water resources, we need to transition away from the most water intensive resources.

Max Frankel is a senior at Vassar College and an intern with the Center for American Progress.

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13 Responses to Burning Rivers: How Coal And Nuclear Are Sucking Up Our Fresh Water

  1. Joan Savage says:

    “Burning Our Rivers” has tables of per-KWh water usage by form of generation, and even breaks down water usage for different steps in extraction of coal and uranium.

    One take-away lesson is that PV solar and wind use far less water to generate a KWh than do hydro or coal.

    Related to the developing climate instability, a big inference is that dependence on large reliable quantities of water put several forms of electricity generation at risk. Coal, hydro, conventional nuclear, and even natural gas are vulnerable to unreliable water supply in ways that geothermal, solar and wind are not.

  2. rjs says:

    true of fracking too…each well in the bakken takes a couple million gallons out of the missouri…

  3. M Tucker says:

    Here in the Southwest we are aware of the limited possibilities hydroelectric offers. We see Lake Mead shrinking. We know the water level may fall below the water intake for the turbines by about 2020. We know Las Vegas is building, at tremendous cost, a new water intake at a lower level to allow that thirsty city to get water after the old intake pipes are exposed. We know that some solar projects being built in the desert require water. We already know that some “green” power sources are not water efficient or sustainable. We know that water shortages are not the only problem posed by the mutual dependence of water and energy. When stream or lake water becomes too warm it cannot be used to cool power plants and the hot outflow from the cooled power plants cannot be sent back into an over heated water source. Both heat and water scarcity will cause power shortages and outages.

  4. Adrien says:

    Does anyone have any idea of the price they pay for this water? If at all?

  5. J4zonian says:

    Sounds like the development in the southwest during the water-drilling years is untenable and people will soon go elsewhere.

  6. jonthed says:

    It seems a freshwater equivalent of the carbon tax could be beneficial here…if companies/power plants want to take water from our rivers and lakes, they can pay a fee per gallon. This will very quickly promote water efficiency, as well as increasing the cost of the most water intensive technologies, hopefully leading to a transition to less resource intensive technologies, which are of course renewables. The effect would be similar to a carbon tax, but the arguments against the carbon tax (apart from hurting big energy) would be harder to apply to water, as, unlike global warming, water shortages are instantly observable, and very easy to prove, and a tax encouraging more efficient use of the water surely hard to argue against? Anyone know of any such proposals?

  7. M Tucker says:

    In the Southwest, especially California, we don’t really drill for water…we take it from elsewhere. The bumper crop of almonds that made news today…a Central Valley crop grown from water taken from N. California. The Coachella Valley and Imperial Valley crops…water from L. Mead. More than half the electricity produced in California is used to move water around the state. Desert agriculture is not sustainable and many of the inland communities will eventually have to move.

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    And turns it into toxic, carcinogenic, sludge.

  9. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    “You cannot drink oil or eat gold”

    When I first heard these words they seem so far fetched. How could we possibly pollute every water source, when would gold not buy food?

    We are now finding pollution even in Antarctica, so many pristine rivers a generation ago are now not safe to drink.

    The amount of gold we need for industry is miniscule even the amount in jewelery is small compared to how much is sitting in vaults. In short gold only has value because we agree it does, its intrinsic value is wasy less than market value.

    When the world’s economies contract and stay contracted there will be a realisation that gold is not a safe haven. Then it’s price will collapse.

  10. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Are you saying they don’t pay for that water? If true, that is simply bizarre, ME

  11. Jason C says:

    I hardly ever see any of these types of article start off talking about “used” vs. “utilized” water. If water is utilized by absorbing some heat and then returned to its source without taking on pollutants, then it could still be usable.

    If on the other hand pollutants are added to the water such that it would take energy to remove them or make it clean enough to safely dispose of the water, that water has been “used”. I don’t understand why this isn’t made clear from the beginning.

    The Palo Verde nuclear plant uses “gray” water for its coolant and other plants simply return the water to their source slightly heated where it dissipates within a few minutes.

    Until this distinction between “used” vs “utilized” is made clear, we don’t have a clear understanding of what kind of usage is going on.

  12. David B. Benson says:

    At the bottom end of a steam turbine cycle the reject heat must be taken out of the spent turbine steam to condense it back to water. This is the case irrespective of the source of the energy, be it coal, natgas, biomass, CSP, geothermal or nuclear.

    There are three ways to cool the condenser used for this purpose:
    (1) once-through water from a river, lake, or the ocean;
    (2) evaporative cooling in a tower (this consumes the cooling water);
    (3) air cooling (which is not as efficient, about 8% of the power produced is used to run the fans).

    This being the case, the use of a Rankine cycle turbine cannot be used to discredit the source of the energy. Other factors certainly can.

    I’m sure that in the future we will see far more use of options (2) and especially (3). The problem with option (1) is that the body of water is heated and the possibilities for doing so responsibly will become increasingly rare.

  13. Adam Cooper says:

    What about combining desalination to nuclear plants close to the ocean?