More water is used in the U.S. to cool natural gas, coal and nuclear power plants than is used for agriculture. Think about that for a moment. Water losses range from 100 gallons to 60,000 gallons for every MWh of electricity produced from fossil-fuel units. While the majority of water withdrawn for cooling is recycled back through the system, approximately 2% to 3% of water can be lost through evaporation.
What does this have to do with wind energy? It is pretty simple: By directly reducing the use of fossil-fuel generation, wind energy can dramatically reduce water consumption by the thermal power industries. Besides not requiring water to operate, wind energy also carries a geographic advantage: Where water availability is most scarce happens to be where wind regimes are strongest, such as in the Colorado River basin.
According to the American Wind Energy Association, generation reductions at fossil fuel-powered plants as a result of wind energy generation led to water consumption savings of 30.5 billion gallons last year. And when all the new wind farms installed in 2012 are operational for a full year, the water savings increase to more than 37.7 billion gallons per year – the equivalent of roughly 120 gallons per capita in the U.S.
These are great talking points, right? However, few are talking about it.
“To date, people haven’t sufficiently touted the water savings associated with wind energy,” explains Stacy Tellinghuisen, senior water analyst at Western Resource Advocates, adding that the water shortage issue will become more problematic in the West this summer due to the winter’s low snow pack amount.
“In a drought year, it is more critical that every sector, including energy, works to reduce water usage,” she says.
Amid the challenges, there is some encouraging news: Water use at power plants in the Interior Mountain West is declining thanks in some part to renewable energy.
According to Western Resource Advocates, clean energy investments made between 2006 and 2010 now save approximately 6.3 billion gallons per year – or enough water to meet the annual needs of approximately 78,000 households. Some of those savings come from energy efficiency and retiring the coal-fired Mojave power plant, she explains, before adding, “but the vast majority of renewable energy water savings are from wind.”
Wind energy helps mitigate water usage by thermal power plants. So why aren’t we all out there educating legislators, public service commissioners and the public at large? This is a no-brainer argument. Case closed. w
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