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: