Amidst Record Drought, Report Shows Massive Water Requirements For Nonrenewable Fuels

Sun, 2012-09-23 18:21Laurel Whitney
Laurel Whitney's picture

Amidst Record Drought, Report Shows Massive Water Requirements For Nonrenewable Fuels

If you haven't heard about the major droughts afflicting most of the US this summer, then you may just have your head in the sand (or more likely a water-parched dusty hole). In fact, the media department of the Drought Monitor website ran out of combinations for modifying the words “intensify” and “widespread” when referring to the drought in their headlines.

Indeed, if you have been keeping tabs on the situation, “megadrought” and “a new normal?” sound highly familiar by now. With farmers nervous about a modern-day Dust Bowl taking hold, the question on everyone's mind is, how long will it last?

This visceral threat of water scarcity puts a new report about the true cost of fossil fuels in perspective. “The Hidden Costs of Electricity: Comparing the Hidden Costs of Power Generation Fuels” evaluates, among other parameters, the water demands of fuel sources such as biomass, coal, nuclear, natural gas, solar, and wind.

In short, the nonrenewables like nuclear and coal use far more water to generate electricity than clean energy technologies like solar and wind. Take a look at how much water power plants need to function (mainly for the purpose of cooling):


  • 700 - 1,100 gallons per MWh (closed-loop systems)
  • 25,000 - 60,000 gal per MWh (open-loop)


  • 500 - 600 gal per MWh (closed-loop)
  • 20,000 - 50,000 gal per MWh (open-loop)


  • 2.42 billion gal per 50 MW plant
  • 40,000 - 100,000 gal per MWh for irrigating crops to burn


  • 225 - 520 gal per MWh (washing Photovoltaic panels)
  • 800 gal per MWh (Concentrating Solar Power wet method cooling)
  • 80 gal per MWh (CSP dry method cooling)
  • 1240 gal per MWh (Trough plant, wet)
  • 290 gal per MWh (Trough plant, dry)


  • 45-85 gal per MWh

It's important to point out that the renewables' highest demand level is around 800 gal/MWh, which is comparable with the lowest levels of coal and nuclear's water usage and nowhere near the highest levels. If you include more extreme ways of extracting energy, methods like hydrofracking use millions of gallons to process natural gas.

This information is yet another reason why apologists for fossil fuels need to stop saying these resources are “cheap” forms of energy.

Says Geoff Keith, senior associate of Synapse Energy Economics Inc.,

“Too often left out of the equation are a number of important ‘hidden’ costs, also called ‘indirect’ or ‘externalized’ costs, associated with each generation technology. These include costs to society such as depletion of water and other resources, air and water pollution, detrimental impacts on human health and the environment, and contributions to global climate change. While direct costs (the monetary cost to build and operate a generating plant) are important to consumers, so too are these indirect costs, whether or not they can be easily expressed in monetary terms.”

If policymakers did consider externalized costs, fossil fuels become significantly less alluring as a major energy source. Much of the rest of the world doesn't even have access to safe drinking water - meaning that our society should make it a higher priority to preserve water for food growth and drinking purposes, not wasteful, outdated energy technologies.

Previous Comments

This is one of those odd times when someone who does not share your analysis comes to the same conclusion. I have a difficulty when an agency of the UN promotes a scare leading to their ability to levy a tax on energy - globally. When that scare is based on the allegation that 'scientists agree' that they can foretell the future based on computer modeling with premises which are far simplified from both usable needs or demonstrable utility to do so … my bullshit detector goes into overdrive.

Nonetheless water supply is a critical matter - not the least because it is an unrecognized tool of covert warfare. Sometimes that is more obvious  : such as when South Korea accuses North Korea of reckless endangerment from release of flood waters. Yet the entire Mississippi Basin can be polluted with chemicals and manure from CAQFOs and their suppliers and the problem will scarcely be acknowledged. Ditto dead zones where oxygen depletion is caused by fertilizer ending up as a feedstock for toxic algal growth.

Hydrofracking has belatedly received attention ignored by the EPA for decades : and made worse by Cheney exemptions from oversight - no matter how much a mockery such might have proved in practice. If you go to my Topical Index and look at files for Energy and WaterI expect you might find interesting leads - such as toxicity of natural; gas as home fuel. Or the consequnces of breaking up the integrity of bedrock - although BlueDaze makes heroic efforts to cover that topic.  Nor is the Coal Ash debacle covered better than at Sourcewatch. And the blowout of Deepwater Horizon was both suspiciously caused by ignoring warnings and damage multiplied and made uncontrollable by use of dispersant - and the worst of the lot used.,  Fukushima looks to have been far worse than reported also - and fills the ocean with radioactive toxins.

But petroleum is a 'strategic resource'. The war industry has its own rationale - and the results are consequently disastrous.

require a method to remove the waste heat from the spent steam in order to condense to water for pumping through the steam generator once again.  This means there is a stream of ordinary water used to remove this reject heat.  That heat must go somewhere.  There are four methods of removing that heat from the ordinary water, all of which are in use although normally one of the first two.

1. Water evaporator.  The article mistakenly calls this closed-loop which it certainly is not as the water is evaporated as in the accompanying picture.  This is the only method which actually consumes water.

2. Once-through water.  This is indeed open loop as water is taken from a river, lake or ocean, used to cool the turbine steam in the condenser and then returned to the source, slightly heated.  Presumably natural processes eventaully cool this once through water but this water is certainly not consumed.

3. Air cooling.  This is similar to the radiator in an automobile; it is closed loop.  It is only used when water is not available as it requires about 5% of the generated electric power to run the fans.

4. Actual closed ground loop.  The ordinary water is pumped through pipes well underground where the water is naturally cooled to underground temperature (which is a quite steady 10 degrees Celcius.  The additional ground heat can be benificially used for council heating or extending the growing season in nearby fields.  Both uses can be found in the low countries and in Germany; maybe also Poland.

Obviously this method, like #3, consumes no water whatsoever, nor does it heat rivers, lakes or oceans as in #2.

that the Rankine cycle component of a CSP generator has been forgotten.  I'd have to see an authoritative reference to be convinced otherwise as the figure should be quite close to that for a coal burner.

applies to solar troughs.

should set matters straight:

Haven't read a Desmog article by Laurel Whitney in a coon's age.

Nice to see you're still writing, Laurel.


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