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Is Water a Barrier to a Low-Carbon Energy Future?

Jesse Jenkins's picture

Jesse is a researcher, consultant, and writer with ten years of experience in the energy sector and expertise in electric power systems, electricity regulation, energy and climate change policy...

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  • Mar 19, 2012

Steam rises at power plant cooling towerAsk an expert on clean tech what the largest barriers to a low carbon energy future are, and chances are they will list higher technology costs, policy barriers, or the need for new infrastructure to accommodate novel energy sources.

But according to a set of expert panelists speaking at the MIT Energy Conference in Boston this Saturday, we’re forgetting a big one: water.

Not convinced? Here’s a few factoids to wet your appetite (pun intended):

  • The US power sector withdrew as much water from America’s rivers, lakes, and oceans for cooling needs as the country uses to irrigate all agricultural lands, according to MIT Professor Ahmed Ghoniem.
  • Worldwide, baseload power plants use the same amount of water for cooling as 545 megacities the size of New York City, according to Peter Evans, Director of Global Planning and Strategy for GE. By 2025 as global power demand grows, water needs will rise to 660 New York City’s worth.

Big numbers indeed, and a potentially substantial challenge to a low-carbon energy transition, particularly for new “baseload” or reliable sources of emissions-free power.

Excepting wind and solar photovoltaics, both intermittent energy sources, all other low-carbon power sources need water — LOTS of it — either for cooling needs (as in the case of geothermal, nuclear, solar thermal, or fossil plants with carbon capture) or as their motive force (in the case of hydroelectric and tidal power). 

To be clear, most of the water “used” by power plants for cooling needs isn’t actually consumed. Except for whatever evaporates, most of the water ends up back in waterways–albeit a bit hotter. 

Still, when it comes to baseload low-carbon power needs, finding a source of cooling water can be a key constraint, cautioned the MIT conference panelists, who spanned industry, academia, and environmental backgrounds. 

As an example, the Palo Verde nuclear power station near Phoenix, Arizona, utilizes the city’s wastewater to meet its cooling needs, pumping 73 million gallons of water to the plant every day, said Jerry Alexander, Global Director of Process Water for Siemens Water Technologies Division. 

As it turns out, Palo Verde, where construction began in 1976, was ahead of its time. Essentially all new power plants in America today are unable to secure permits to use freshwater sources for cooling needs, Alexander noted. New regulations coming down the pipe from the US Environmental Protection Agency could also force older, existing plants to switch to recycled water or “dry” cooling techniques that minimize water use.

That’s a key opportunity for entrepreneurs. New technological innovations, thoughtful design and siting, and better recycling and management of power sector water needs are all key to overcoming this potential barrier, the panelists noted.

Consider the case of a new solar thermal electric power station, like the Ivanpah plant under construction now by BrightSource Energy in California. 

Out in the desert, freshwater isn’t an option, and it’s probably a long way to the nearest large municipal wastewater treatment plant. 

Dry evaporative cooling, or “air cooling,” is the only real option, then, said Colleen Layman, a water treatment engineer with Bechtel Corporation, which helps build power plants all over the world, including the Ivanpah solar plant

Yet cooling needs at a solar thermal plant are highest during the heat of the day, when power output is greatest. That’s also precisely when air cooling is least efficient, according to John Maulbetsch, a consultant specializing in water management. 

This isn’t a challenge for solar thermal alone. Only two nuclear power plants in the world today are air cooled, said Siemens’s Alexander. That’s going to have to change, as new reactors come online in an increasingly water constrained world. 

Layman agreed, noting that Becthel is partnering with Babcock and Wilcox on new small, modular nuclear reactor designs. The consortia is focused on air cooled designs, she said.

Improving the efficiency of air cooled power plants is just one place where new innovation is needed. Maulbetsch also pointed to improvements in steam turbine designs that can optimize water usage or better facilitate air cooling, while Layman called for better membrane technologies to help treat water discharges from power plants.

All the panelists agreed: water shouldn’t be a barrier to a low-carbon future.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” fisheries biologist Timothy Hogan optimistically concluded. 

New innovations in technology, siting, and practice will be the key.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Mar 20, 2012

Jim Baird’s approach doesn’t generate waste heat, in a hotter world.

Personally, I think this article is akin to finding water for overheated horses. We’ll need horses for our base workloads for a while, yet. But I think it is so far from solving the issue it is just another stage show.

Perhaps there is another crazy scientist out there who appreciates how water, when created from hydrogen fuels and oxygen creates a FLAME. People used to burn gas and oil and wax candles for the LIGHT, not the HEAT. Heat and boiling steam are thermodynamic waste. A direct PV electrical generation from near IR gas flames will still give local hot water for “clean” energy.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Mar 21, 2012


A little bit of Thinking Outside the Box, and we’ll use all that Heat to convert Sea Water to fresh drinking/agricultural water.

I am not that convinced that water availability will be just so big an insurmountable obstacle.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Mar 21, 2012

I came up with an idea a long time ago, but must be too costly or inefficient to be practical… Use what ever energy to split water, let it rise up along a very high mountain. Build a pipe strong enough to contain water all the way back down, then burn it (as gas generator) and also generate as hydro from the massive head pressures. At what height would the hydro contribution overcome the major inefficiency flaws in the hydrogen scheme alone?

Another question: How impossible is it to build pipes that can withstand salt water (into solar thermal regions) for 30 years or so (for desalination)?

And what do you guys think about LFTR?

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Mar 21, 2012

Jim Baird, best of luck.

I gave up on that crowd 20 years ago after pushing recycling plastic to mass produce livestock septic tanks, and developing hay crop combined protein and fuel farming. Those who claim to worry about water resources never look at what has happened to the Mississippi River over the last generation. We had quite a concern in Minnesota about mutant frogs a decade ago, which was solved by draining the wetlands so there aren’t frogs; problem solved.

I’ve had terminally ill stop here to see what wildflowers look like. This whole culture looks terminally ill to me.

Richard Viers's picture
Richard Viers on Mar 23, 2012

I have to agree with Jim, even though I am really much more enthusiastic about using solar to create power. 

This planet, every aspect of it’s existence is based on solar energy.  You only have to understand one thing

the sun heats the water, the water evaporates and moves into the upper atmosphere, when it hits cold air it

moves downward.  The cycles that create the winds, the rains and all living things on this planet rely on two

elements, maybe if you really think about it the third one which is earth itself, which is actually able to retain

much more solar energy than water is only important because of the effect it has on the other two. Earth Wind

And Water are the only things we need to create energy…. We only need to follow the examples set forth by

our planet. We don’t need to drain the pools of oil, and destabilize the strata beneath our feet. We don’t need to worry about using up all of our water, as long as we stay here on earth, we can destabilize and poison it, but

we can’t use it up. Our bodies and the other needs we have for using water all eventually end up back to earth one way or another.  We rearrange bodies of water and change our climate, we use water in ways that take a long time to heal. But this planet forgives, we just need to learn to use our elements in ways that don’t poison.

Richard Viers   Alternative Energy Products Group, Stanley North Carolina USA

Jesse Parent's picture
Jesse Parent on Mar 23, 2012

Yes. The connection between energy and other resources, (particularly water), needs to be made more clear. Very important to keep in mind. These are not isolated matters, but only have any reality when understood in a collective manner.

Iain McClatchie's picture
Iain McClatchie on Apr 11, 2012

First, the notion that powerplants use as much water as agriculture is just bogus.  The correct claim would be that powerplants pump as much water as agriculture, but that’s hardly very interesting.  And conflating freshwater usage with seawater and sewage use is even more bogus.

Nevertheless, new inland pressurized water reactor builds are going to be nearly impossible anywhere with freshwater constraints, which means most of the western United States.  Nuclear plants reject more heat for the same electrical power than coal plants, and the minimum nuclear plant build is 2200 MW(e).  It’s pretty difficult to imagine finding 2500 MW(e) of older coal-fired turbines in one spot that could be shut down to transfer water rights to the nuclear plants.

I’d like to think that seawater cooled PWRs have a future in the United States.  The West Coast especially has a short continental shelf with trenches bringing relatively lifeless water from the bottom.  Raising and heating this water can lead to healthy ecosystems like what we have in Monterey Bay.  California’s Diablo Canyon site was originally intended for 8 units, but they built just two.  I would really like to see 4 new AP1000s built there.

I’ll second the desire to see more LFTR development.  High temperature heat rejection to air vastly simplifies the siting and physical security problems.

Jesse Jenkins's picture
Thank Jesse for the Post!
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