Wind Energy Conserves Water

The production of clean wind energy reduces the consumption of water, which is heavily relied on to cool thermal power plants. It also avoids significant carbon dioxide emissions annually by displacing generation from fossil fuel power plants.

Water Use in the Power Sector

The power sector withdraws more water than any other sector in the United States, including the agricultural sector.  By displacing electricity generation from other sources, wind energy avoids water withdrawals and consumption, preserving the water for other uses.

For thermal power plant cooling (coal, natural gas, nuclear), water is withdrawn to circulate for cooling, therefore is removed from the ground or diverted from a surface source for use.  A fraction of the water withdrawn is actually consumed (or not returned to the source) because it evaporates or transpires. 

  • Even through the fraction of water consumption is small compared with water withdrawals in the power sector, water consumption for power generation still totals an estimated 1 to 2 trillion gallons of water each year (~11 trillion bottles of water).  Withdraws of water for power sector cooling total an estimated 22 to 62 trillion gallons annually.

Water Conserved by Wind Energy

The 226 million megawatt-hours (MWh) generated by wind energy during 2016 helped avoid the consumption of roughly 87 billion gallons of water, the equivalent of 266 gallons per person, or 657 billion bottles of water.

2015 Water Savings

Source: AWEA U.S. Wind Industry Annual Market Report 2016

During 2014 in California, wind energy saved 2.5 billion gallons of water by displacing water consumption at the state’s thirsty fossil-fired power plants, playing a valuable role in alleviating the state’s record drought. Wind energy’s annual water savings work out to around 65 gallons per person in the state (200 gallons per household), or the equivalent of 20 billion bottles of water.

More on Water Use in the Power Sector

A 2011 report from Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) titled Freshwater Use by U.S. Power Plants, finds that:

  • On average, water-cooled thermoelectric power plants in the United States withdrew 60 billion to 170 billion gallons (180,000 to 530,000 acre-feet) of freshwater from rivers, lakes, streams, and aquifers, and consumed 2.8 billion to 5.9 billion gallons (8,600 to 18,100 acre-feet) of that water daily.
  • U.S. power plants withdrew enough freshwater each day in 2008 to supply 60 to 170 cities the size of New York.
  • Water withdrawals per MWh can range from almost zero for a solar photovoltaic, wind, or dry-cooled natural gas plant, to hundreds of gallons for an efficient plant using recirculating cooling, to tens of thousands of gallons for a nuclear or coal plant using once-through cooling.
  • Water consumption per MWh can similarly range from almost zero for solar, wind, or gas plants using dry cooling to around 1,000 gallons for coal, oil, or concentrating solar power (CSP) with recirculating cooling.

Withdrawal and consumption of water impacts regions of the U.S. differently depending on the location of the thermal power plants. Local issues of drought or competing uses of water such as agriculture can cause regional stress if there is limited water resource.

Water Consumption/Withdraw by State from UCS

Source: Union of Concerned Scientists, Freshwater Use by U.S. Power Plants, 2011