Tapping the Wind and Sun to Save Water

This post is by Dr. Bill Chameides, Dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment and lead author of the forthcoming blog The Green Grok.

Everyone knows we need green energy to fight global warming. But there’s another big reason to tap renewable power sources –- not enough water.

Large swaths of the Southwest and Southeast are in the throes of debilitating droughts. North Texas and Oklahoma’s recent dry spell dragged on from 2003 to the spring of 2007 (more on U.S. droughts). Droughts have even wiped out entire civilizations like the Anasazi (see Jared Diamond’s Collapse and Eugene Linden‘s Winds of Change).

But today’s water problems are far more profound than those of the Anasazi. The huge quantities we use — unprecedented in human history — make us more vulnerable to drought. Our water woes stem from an ever-increasing demand for water to slake the thirsts of a growing population on the one hand and to irrigate crops to feed that same population on the other.

Few people appreciate that yet another sector is clamoring for more water — the power industry. Fortunately we have the technology to wean this one from our dwindling supplies.

Another water hog: Conventional power plants

Have you noticed that power plants tend to be located near rivers, lakes or oceans? Do you know why? Easy, they need lots and lots of water.

Niagara Mohawk’s Dunkirk steam station in New YorkConventional and nuclear power plants, like the coal-fired plant pictured here on Lake Erie, are usually located by a lake or river because they need lots of water to operate. NREL/David Parsons

Coal-burning, natural gas-fired and nuclear power plants (which together produce about 90% of the country’s power) all generate electricity through a thermal process. They burn fossil fuels or split atoms to generate heat to boil water. The resulting pressurized steam turns a turbine that drives a generator that produces electricity.

It’s a process that produces lots of waste heat, which must be dissipated to keep the plant from overheating. So in addition to the source of water needed to make the steam (usually the nearby river or lake), even more water, generally much more than that required to make the steam, is needed to cool things down.

Because water is so integral to conventional and nuclear power production, strained water supplies put energy production at risk. A case in point is the Corette Power Plant in Billings, Montana, which siphons water daily from the Yellowstone River to produce electricity. The plant needs the river flow to be above 1,500 cubic feet per second to stay online. A recent dip below this level prompted a shutdown.

Unfortunately, this is not anomalous. Reduced water supplies are wreaking havoc across the country, fueling debate and water wars. A list of troubles includes:

  • Florida’s Polk County trying to generate electricity without drying up wells,
  • the decade-long fight between Alabama, Florida, and Georgia over who gets to draw how much water when (see this recent AP report and CNN video) and
  • the receding waters of the once majestic Rio Grande, which failed to reach the Gulf of Mexico during much of 2001 and 2002.

Prognosis: Global warming means less water

Predicting the precise impacts of global warming is difficult, but by almost all indications things are not going to be pleasant. More specifically, there is a strong scientific consensus that water will be a big casualty of climate change. Higher temperatures will cause soils to dry out faster, making us more prone to long stretches of drought.

If this comes to pass, it could devastate our water system as increasing demands compete for a shrinking supply. Even without droughts, a warmer world will stress conventional power plant operations. The water used for cooling plants, which must be returned to its source after cooling, cannot be so hot that it undermines the river’s or lake’s ecosystem.

Severe heat waves can render cooling systems inoperable and cause shutdowns of power plants at the very time when demand for electricity is often the highest. During the 2007 heat wave, for instance, the Tennessee Valley Authority had to shut down a nuclear reactor because of high temperatures in the Tennessee River. Similar episodes have occurred in Europe.

We’re all too familiar with power outages and brownouts during hot spells, when the power grid is stressed to capacity. Global warming could make these events commonplace.

Among existing solutions, green power is the most potent

But it does not have to be that way. Weaning our power system off water would make it less prone to disruptions from shortages and rising temperatures while leaving more water available for municipal and agricultural needs.

Photovoltaic panelsPhotovoltaic power plants, like this SunEdison plant in Colorado, draw very little water to generate electricity. As the world continues to wrangle over dwindling water supplies, green power could be a powerful solution. NREL/Steve Wilcox

A small number of tweaks to our current system is helping staunch the slowly evolving water crisis, but more needs to be done. Newer plants are being designed to use less water. Unfortunately, such efficiency doesn’t help the hundreds of old plants supplying much of our power. Alternative cooling methods are also being pursued, with several plants using dry or air cooling. But while such technology exists, a scant 600 plants worldwide use it.

Renewable energy offers a wide window of hope. Green power sources like wind and solar photovoltaics require tiny amounts of water. While such green solutions comprise only about three percent of our electricity, this could change and almost certainly must if we are to meet rising demands for drinking water and irrigation in a warming world.

Some say that green energy won’t be able to provide a significant portion of our electricity needs. But solving big problems usually requires thinking out of the box. Now I am just a dean, albeit at a great university, so what do I know about business, you might ask? I certainly wouldn’t suggest taking investment advice from me, but my guess is that the time is ripe for investing in green power. And high time it is.

Dr. Bill ChameidesRead more about Dr. Bill Chameides, Dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment.

  1. rk

    There are several logical flaw in this article.

    First, nuclear and coal power plants do not ‘take’ allot of water.
    They take in allot of cool water, and expel exactly as much slightly warmer water.

    Silicon solar cells take tons of water to make, and the waste water afterwards is polluted (unlike a nuclear power plant’s discharge).

    On the other hand, corn ethanol takes tons of water to produce. The water is used for irrigation and is not reclaimed.

    Power production in general has nothing to do with water supplies. This article advocates the correct behavior, alternative energy, for the wrong reasons.

  2. David Zetland

    Good post and important topic. Here’s my post on water and power. More comments:
    1) Most water withdrawn for cooling is “useless” in some way: too hot, polluted or evaporated.
    2) A LOT of cooling water is seawater. Lots of it BUT discharge can still be bad for animals.
    3) Many energy plants get away with using so much water because they claim little consumptive use (as RK points out), but they are surely disrupting the system in the same way as a dam “interrupts” a river’s flow.
    4) Charging plants for water intake would help them find ways to reduce use. Factories cut their water discharge (and thus intake) by 90% when discharge fees rose. They just built recirculation systems.

  3. Bobby B.

    Thank you, rk! I wonder sometimes why people who obviously know very little about power generation present themselves as experts on the subject. I am no expert myself, but I have been employed by one small power plant and three large facilities with power houses on site.

    Quality boiler water is a precious commodity, and it takes quite of bit of money and effort to produce. It must be filtered down to a few microns to remove all of the solids. It must be demineralized to prevent scaling on the boiler tube walls. It even has to be treated to keep trace chemicals that exist naturally from corroding the boiler tubes. As such, it exists essentially in a closed loop although some make-up water is necessary. Superheated steam gets condensed back into liquid water after passing through the turbine in order to be reheated and used again and again and again. Most steam plants are an elaborate counter-flow heat exchanger. Boiler flue gas flows on the outside of the tubes one direction, and boiler feed water flows inside the tubes in the other direction. As such, the water that cools the intense heat of combustion is the same water that gets transformed into steam to drive the turbine.

    Similar – although not quite as intensive – treatment is require of the cooling water used in the condenser and/or cooling towers. The condenser has cooling water tube side and turbine exhaust shell side. Its purpose is to transform the steam leaving the turbine back into liquid. Cooling towers are necessary in some applications to cool the cooling water after it is heated up in the condenser. Except for the water needed to make up for the vapors leaving the cooling towers, a cooling water system also operates in a closed loop.

    It may be a good time to invest in green energy, but please refrain from misrepresenting the existing methods of producing electricity. The examples cited are not representative of the entire industry.

  4. David Zetland

    Undo? Simple — remove government subsidies for corn, mandates for ethanol and barriers to imported ethanol. Tax carbon emissions. Let the market work instead of special interests.

  5. Erica Rowell

    Bill Chameides responds. Thanks for the responses. It’s always nice to know that someone out there is paying attention. Here’s what comes to mind after reading the comments.

    The bottom line: You can talk about how power plants operate, and how they process water, and how they recycle water all you want. It does not change the fact that conventional power plants can not operate without having large quantities of water on hand. Some use more than others, but all require water. (See USGS stats.) When water is in short supply (for example because of a drought) or when temperatures get too high (for example because of a heat wave), the operation of the vast majority of conventional power plants becomes problematic. That is just a fact.

    And yes, conventional power plants most definitely do take or withdraw water from rivers and lakes. It is true that much of the water they take is not consumed and is returned to the lake or river from which it came, but it most certainly is used. And the water that is returned is not the same as the water that was taken — it is hotter and that exacts an environmental toll.

    It is incorrect to refer to recirculating water-cooled power plants as “closed loop.” They use what is called “makeup” water to replace evaporative losses and maintain water chemistry and thus are not closed loop. In fact, while recirculating water-cooled power plants withdraw less water, they often consume more water than non-recirculating plants. For example, coal plants with recirculating tower cooling systems require about 6,000 to 10,000 gallons per minute of makeup water; that’s a factor of 2-4 times more water than non-recirculating coal plants use.

    There are alternate designs for conventional power plants that lead to much lower water consumption rates — namely, air cooled power plants. These were one of the water-saving alternatives featured in my original post.

    Now let’s talk about water and solar photovoltaic (pv): @rk points out that “silicon solar cells take tons of water to make, and the waste water afterwards is polluted.” The issue raised here relates to what we call “life cycle analysis” — assessing the environmental impact of a technology through its entire life cycle. It’s an excellent point. Most of the water consumed by solar pv is actually consumed in its production rather than its operation. But let’s be careful and be sure to use a level playing field. If we consider how much water is consumed producing solar cells, then let’s also consider how much water is used and how much is polluted to mine coal and uranium, as well as how much is used and how much is polluted to produce the steel and cement to make power plants. The picture changes, don’t you think?

    Finally this thing about corn ethanol. I absolutely agree that corn ethanol is an environmental loser — in part because of all the water it requires. I don’t even consider corn ethanol to be “green energy.” But I also don’t recall mentioning corn ethanol in my post. The post was about generation of electricity and how solar and wind power might help. What does this have to do with corn ethanol? I would love to be invited back to give a post on the pitfalls of the rush to corn ethanol. It’s just not relevant to this discussion.

  6. Bobby B.

    Great reply Dr. Chameides. It’s nice to see someone make a post and be prepared to defend it. Here are a few responses by paragraph.

    P1 => Yes, all steam based power plants require a considerable amount of water. And yes, they perform better when cool atmospheric and water temperatures prevail, because the improved condensing of exhaust steam from the turbine draws more vacuum on the turbine thereby yielding greater efficiency. Nonetheless, your original post gave the impression of a “once through and out” cycle.Those based upon gas turbines require much less, but since there are markets for steam they often produce it for sale.

    P3 => Government regulations exist for all industrial water discharge points. They regulate such things as chemical content and temperature. Breaking these regulations result in fines.

    P4 => That’s news to me and seems counter-intuitive.

    P5 => Air cooling requires much more surface than water cooling, because water’s potential for heat absorption is considerably more than air’s for a given volume. Why not use a refrigeration (Freon) based cooling system?

    P6 & P7 => I did not discuss either of these topics.

  7. Paul Risher


    You comment that,”…green solutions comprise only about 3% of our electricity consumption….” What is your source for the consumption? The Energy Information Administration data shows 39.65 quadrillion BTU’s of electricity production for 2006. Of that 0.264 quadrillion BTU’s is attributable to wind, and 0.070 quadrillion BTU’s is attributable to photo voltaics. As a percentage, 0.66% is attributable to wind and 0.18% is attributable to photo voltaics. In the aggregate, they account for 0.84%. Undoubtedly, the EIA misses some, but there is a wide difference between 3.0% and 0.84%. (I love writing about this because I get to use the word quadrillion.)

  8. Erica Rowell

    Dr. Chameides responds to Paul and Bobby B.

    Thanks for joining the conversation, Paul. When we said, “such green solutions comprise only about three percent of our electricity,” we were referring to all renewables not just wind and solar pv. As shown in the chart we linked to above, in 2006, 2.4 percent of the country’s power was supplied by “other renewables,” according to the Energy Information Administration. We should have said “between 2 and 3 percent” to be more precise.

    * * * * * *

    Hi Bobby B.
    1. It may be counterintuitive but it is true — recirculating plants withdraw less water, but if they use cooling towers, they can end up consuming more water than non-recirculating plants. The reason is that the cooling tower exposes a lot of the water to the atmosphere and leads to lots of evaporative losses. For more information check out the DOE’s “Energy Demands on Water Resources: Report to Congress on the Interdependency of Energy and Water” [PDF] (December 2006) and “US Water Consumption for Power Production – The Next Half Century” [PDF] from EPRI.
    2. Interesting idea about using a refrigerant to cool the water instead of air or water. However, I suspect that there might be a significant energy or efficiency price to pay — refrigeration requires a lot of electricity.
    3. Yes, you did not discuss pv or corn ethanol but rk did and hence the response.
    Thanks again for a lively discussion.

  9. curt

    rk said: ‘They take in allot of cool water, and expel exactly as much slightly warmer water.’

    I had been following situation/impact of one coal power plant and one Westinghouse nuclear power plant to the river life for many years. Direct effect was/is just disastrous, no matter the legislation about temperature of exit water. River or marine life are simply too sensitive to greater temperature changes. If there is going to be less water available for cooling/mixing, such impact to the environment is going to be even higher.
    The recent UK study about the impact of nuclear power plants located close to the coast is simply catastrophic to marine life, because of the high temperature of exit/discharge water.

    (just a bit about the temperature problem)

    I totally agree with the article, that there is going to be less and less fresh water. The water is going to become more rare commodity and more pricier, than it is now, and as such much more prioritized and much better treated.

  10. Bobby B.

    I still do not care for the term “renewables”. You really are not replacing anything that you consumed. Sun, solar & ocean currents are beyond man’s control. Fuels from biomass and agriculture require that new trash and/or new vegetation be produced to make the fuel. A “renewable” suggests the regeneration of what once was, not the replacement of it by another. It’s on the same personal pet peeve list as “organic” produce. All produce is organic no matter how it’s grown.

    1. What may I ask is the end product of a cooling tower’s evaporative losses? Wouldn’t it be humidity bonded to dust to form clouds to produce rain that returns to the earth? Does not the rainfall make its way to the streams, rivers, lakes and oceans, as well soak through the soil and rock back into the aquifers? Although one area may run dry, on a global scale, will not the water balance remain relatively constant? While it is true that we may exhaust a river or an aquifer at one location, does it not stand to reason that there is likely another that remains untapped and/or growing. Relocating people, factories, cities, etc. from one area to another to allow the first area to restore itself naturally is rarely considered an alternative these days. However, given mankind’s nomadic history of following the resources that may be what becomes necessary at some future date. I know it’s not an easy pill to swallow, but it may prove to be a future reality.

    2. I was actually talking about using refrigeration to condense the heavily treated turbine exhaust steam. Refrigeration may be energy intensive, but it does do away with discharging warm water into the lakes and streams, as well as the evaporative effects of cooling towers. Your idea about air cooling is creative, but creating the necessary surface area in the exchangers may require more resources than desired on the front end of the project.

    Thanks for continuing the discussion.

  11. Steven Earl Salmony

    Become a CLIMATE HERO be simply speaking out!

    A failure of unimaginable proportions is bound up in the the willful blindness, hysterical deafness and elective mutism of so many opinion leaders, economic powerbrokers, politicians and business tycoons who do not speak out openly, loudly and clearly about the world we inhabit as bounded and limited in space with finite resources. Their idolatry of the endless expansion of the global political economy is not only selfish, arrogant and unrealistic; they are also perversely choosing to recklessly espouse a “primrose path” of unbridled economic globalizaiton to our children, a path to the future that a relatively small planet with the size and make-up of Earth cannot possibly sustain much longer, much less to the year 2050.

    At least to me, this failure by my not-so-great generation of leading elders is a “sin of omission” that is tantamount to a passive criminal act against the family of humanity, life as we know it and the Earth God blesses us to inhabit…and not ruin, I suppose.

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, established 2001

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