The current U.S. power plant fleet consumes a massive amount of freshwater–more than 40 percent of all freshwater withdrawals as recently as 2005–according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Those water withdrawals make electricity generation the largest “consumer” of fresh water outside the agriculture sector.
The good news is that generating power from wind doesn’t require water, unlike traditional forms of electricity generation. And since wind farms directly offset the most expensive, least efficient source on the utility grid–usually an older fossil-fuel plant– added wind energy dramatically reduces our power grid’s water consumption.
The wind energy projects currently installed in the U.S. will avoid consumption of over 37.7 billion gallons of water per year. That’s the equivalent of nearly 286 billion bottles of water.
States in the usually arid Southwest could particularly benefit from adding wind power, as many are currently experiencing near record-setting drought. At one point earlier this year, nearly 99 percent of New Mexico was classified as having extreme or exceptional drought, according to researchers at the University of Arizona.
In Texas, severe drought conditions have been exacerbated by the often water-intensive extraction process required for fuel production, as well as by climate change.
But other regions also could use the water-saving benefits of wind power. Several areas throughout the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, and Southeast are experiencing water challenges related to the electricity sector’s use, according to a recent Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) report.
In some cases, the incoming cooling water is too warm for efficient and safe operation; in others, cooling water is too hot for safe release into nearby rivers or lakes. When traditional power plants cannot get enough cooling water, they must cut back or completely shut down their generators, as happened in 2011 and 2012 at plants around the country, the UCS report notes.
Graphic courtesy of Union of Concerned Scientists
Adding more wind power, already established as a readily scalable source of clean energy, could help reduce these issues.
All forms of energy production have different natural resource requirements, as well as different impacts on the natural environment and human health. Wind power has many advantages over traditional sources of energy, and as costs continue to decline, it is becoming increasingly clear how important wind power is to our nation’s energy future.
Connecting the dots: Trout, water, and renewable energy, September 3, 2013
Bloomberg New Energy Finance chief: Water is emerging issue, October 1, 2012
Opinion: Considering wind power and water use in Nebraska, August 24, 2012
On World Water Day 2012, a reminder: Use wind, save water, March 22, 2012
Saving water and reducing carbon: How Texas is doing both, November 30, 2011
New report highlights power plant stress on freshwater supplies in Southeast, November 21, 2011
Drought sears South Central states; wind power saving water, August 1, 2011
Think tank: Water needs may limit shale gas, some renewables, June 29, 2011
Water anxiety? Wind power can help, June 16, 2011
Wind Energy Conserving Water fact sheet