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Our Energy Choices: Energy and Water Use

Energy and water use are closely intertwined. Most power plants generate power by boiling water to produce steam that spins electricity-generating turbines. Large quantities of water are often used to cool that steam.

Fuel production—coal mining, natural gas extraction, and growing crops for biofuels—also requires extensive water supplies, as does refining fuels for transportation.

In places where energy production requires a large share of available water, or where water resources are scarce or stressed by competing pressures, the energy-water connection can turn into a collision—with dangerous implications for both.

Our energy choices have a direct effect on our water resources.

Producing energy from fossil fuels, nuclear power, and some renewable energy sources often involves substantial amounts of water. Depending on what technology it uses, a typical 500-megawatt coal-fired or nuclear power plant, for example, might withdraw about 400 million gallons of water a day from local lakes, rivers, or aquifers, and lose several million gallons of that water to evaporation.

When we build power plants in areas with limited water resources, they threaten the quality and availability of freshwater for other essential needs.

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The Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative (EW3)

Precipitation patterns are expected to change as the Earth's climate changes in response to global warming. Over the coming decades, many already dry areas are expected to become even drier as rainfall decreases.

As available water resources diminish, the water needs of energy production will come into increasing conflict with other water demands, such as agriculture and clean drinking supplies.

The Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative is a collaborative effort between UCS and a team of independent experts to complete and synthesize policy-relevant research on the water demands of energy production in the context of climate variability and change—and provide guidance on making smart energy choices in the future.

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Image (top): iStock, Zeiss4Me

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