Wind power in the United States quadrupled in the last five years, with four states now possessing enough wind turbines to supply more than 20 percent of their annual electricity needs, according to a study published last week by the non-profit Environment Ohio Research & Policy Center.
Assuming that wind generation has displaced capacity of natural gas and coal-fired power plants, the increase in wind power has helped the United States avoid 85.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution in 2012 alone, along with 79,600 tons of nitrogen oxide emissions and nearly 100,000 tons of sulfur dioxide pollution — the key ingredients of smog.
Replacing power plants with wind energy throughout the country has also saved enough water to supply the annual water needs of more than a million people, the study showed.
“Thanks to wind energy, America uses less water for power plants and produces less climate-altering carbon pollution,” the report, which was compiled through analysis of data on current and projected future annual wind generation from the federal Energy Information Administration, said. “To protect the environment, federal and state governments should continue and expand policies that support wind energy.”
Fossil fuel plants generally use large amounts of water for cooling their systems, the study said, which can come at a cost. While taking in water for cooling, plants can accidentally suck fish and other aquatic life into their intakes. After the water is used for cooling, it is generally discharged, but at a temperature that can be up to 17 degrees hotter than it was when it was withdrawn. The study estimated that half of all power plant cooling systems discharge water at temperatures that can harm aquatic life.
Additionally, the study found, fossil fuel plants with so-called “recirculating cooling systems” do withdraw less water from waterways and aquifers, but wind up losing more of that water to evaporation, which potentially exacerbates the local water supply.
If the United States were to install wind energy between now and 2018 at the same pace that it has in the last five years, enough water would be saved to supply annual domestic water needs to 2.1 million people annually by 2018, the study showed. More than 121,000 tons of nitrogen oxide emissions and and 195,000 tons of sulfur dioxide could be saved every year, along with approximately 157 million metric tons of carbon pollution annually.
The study can be found in full here.