Infographic On The Energy-Water Collision: How Hot, Dry Summers Impact Water and Power Generation

Wigwam Jones, via Flickr

Every year, the United States consumes more than 3 trillion KWh of electricity. This power is generated by coal-fired power plants, nuclear plants, solar panels, hydroelectric damns, wind turbines, geothermal wells, and other sources and it requires water to produce.

As much as 41% of all water used in the United States goes to power plants to produce electricity, making them the single largest water consumer in the nation.

The relationship between water and power generation is complex. (A recent report featured on Climate Progress called “Burning Our Rivers: The Water Footprint of Electricity” takes an in depth look at water usage, particularity in the coal and nuclear sectors.) A whole host of issues can emerge related to the massive water consumption of the energy industry. Many of those issues become exacerbated in particularly hot and dry conditions, much like the ones we are experiencing this summer.

Problems arise when water levels are too low to satisfy thirsty power plants due to drought. Heat can create situations in which water from natural sources like rivers and lakes is too hot to cool vital power plant components or is too hot after cooling to be discharged back in to the water system.

Such situations happen frequently at the Brown’s Ferry plant in Alabama. In three of the last five years, the plant has had to cut power generation in order to ensure it doesn’t flood the Tennessee River ecosystem with overheated water, thus raising the price of electricity for local consumers.

In 2006, during a heat wave that pales in comparison to this year’s, the Prairie Island nuclear plant in Minnesota, in the northern part of the Mississippi River,  had to drastically cut production because the river’s water was too hot to serve as a viable coolant.

Issues like those at Prairie Island and Brown’s Ferry are prevalent now and will only become bigger going forward.

A move away from water-gobbling power sources like coal and nuclear would help alleviate the pains of the Energy-Water Collision. Solar and wind power, in addition to being renewable and  greenhouse gas and CO2 emissions free, are also relatively water free — even solar thermal can be (see “The secret to low-water-use, high-efficiency concentrating solar power“).

With proper investment, these energy sources hold enormous potential and promise for the future.

The infographic below, created by the Union Of Concerned Scientists, is a great representation of the Energy-Water Collision and what we can do about it:

— Max Frankel

9 Responses to Infographic On The Energy-Water Collision: How Hot, Dry Summers Impact Water and Power Generation

  1. M Tucker says:

    Excellent piece! This is a very important topic but don’t forget the new darling of the energy sector natural gas AND some concentrated solar is also cooled by water. The future we have committed ourselves to requires that we immediately move away from water cooled power generation. Even hydropower will be impacted. Just ask the folks living in Las Vegas. Even the new “micro-hydropower” can be shutdown by drought. Colorado is making a big gamble with the security of its citizens and their economy.

  2. Leif says:

    “As much as 41% of all water used in the United States goes to power plants to produce electricity, making them the single largest water consumer in the nation.”

    I would add: Rapidly polluting all the rest!

  3. Leif says:

    Drought affected regions will want to pay attention here. Another insidious downside to the fossil energy industry.

    Even though some forms of green energy use water, that for the most part is recycled or can be and clearly not polluted.

  4. Not enough water is the problem here in the Southwest. Does anyone know where they get all the water for the Four Corners, San Juan & Luna power plants?

  5. Bernhard says:

    The first time I became keenly aware of this challenge was in 2003 and central Europe experienced an unusually hot summer. France with its heavy dependence on nuclear power had to reduce many of its power plants to half capacity and get the fire departments to help with cooling the nuclear plants. As global warming progresses we will see an escalation of the conflict water versus energy.

  6. Joan Savage says:

    Hope you find a comprehensive answer. PNM itself reports that the San Juan plant withdraws from the San Juan River into a holding pond, and uses an average 22,000 acre-feet per year.

  7. Joan Savage says:

    Of relevance to the main blog, PNM has a comparison of the water use of evaporative cooling (swamp coolers) versus air conditioners. It shows that though swamp coolers use less electricity, overall they use over five times as much water as AC, when including PNMs electricity generation (infer coal for that).

    Obviously that water use for cooling could be nearly eliminated with wind or PV solar based electricity for AC.

  8. Scott says:

    green energy is not sustainable enough to provide a good economy, given the fact that you are using more energy than you are trying to provide green energy to the people.

    Electric cars are not as green as you think. You are actually dependent on the coal companies to provide the electricity just to charge your electric cars. So if the coal companies are shut down because of the new green regulations, there goes your ability to charge your electric cars. You will soon find out the hard way that your electric cars will be the new generation of redneck front yard ornaments.

  9. riverat says:

    It took a while to build out the fossil fuel infrastructure. It will take a while to build out the renewable/green energy infrastructure.