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The Energy Sector is One of the Largest Consumers of Water in a Drought-Threatened World

photo Orin Bloomberg

Photo: Orin Bloomberg

The implications of the global water footprint of energy generation are phenomenal, writes Gary Bilotta of the University of Brighton. He warns that if policy makers fail to take into account the links between energy and water, we may come to a point in many parts of the world where it is water availability that is the main determinant of the energy sources available for use. Courtesy The Conversation.

With a quarter of the world’s human population already living in regions that suffer from severe water scarcity for at least six months of the year, it is perhaps not surprising that the World Economic Forum recently rated water crises as the largest global risk in terms of potential impacts over the next decade.

Electricity generation is a significant consumer of water: it consumes more than five times as much water globally as domestic uses (drinking, preparing food, bathing, washing clothes and dishes, flushing toilets and the rest) and more than five times as much water globally as industrial production.

Gary Bilotta figure 1

Figure 1: Water abstraction for human activities globally, based on data from Mekonnen et al., (2015) and Hoekstra and Mekonnen (2012). Gary Bilotta, Author provided


While electricity generation consumes far less water than food production globally, it is expected that there will be enormous changes in the water demands of electricity over the course of the 21st century. The International Energy Agency projected a rise of 85% in global water use for energy production between 2012 and 2032 alone.

If policy makers fail to take into account the links between energy and water, we may come to a point in many parts of the world where it is water availability that is the main determinant of the energy sources available for use

These changes will be driven by a combination of factors. First, human population growth, which is estimated to rise from 7.4 billion people today to between 9.6 to 12.3 billion by 2100. Second, by improvements in access to energy for the 1.4 billion people who currently have no access to electricity and the billion people who currently only have access to unreliable electricity networks. And third, progressive electrification of transport and heating as part of efforts to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Exactly how these changes in the water footprint of electricity are going to play out will depend on the national and international energy policies enacted over the next few decades. Historically, energy policies have been influenced by a multitude of factors (national availability of energy resources, financial costs, reliability of supply, security of supply and the like).

Following on from the Paris COP21 agreement, the carbon footprint of energy should have an increased influence on decision making in the sector. As can be seen from Figure 2, there are considerable differences in the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from different electricity generation technologies (g CO2eq/kWh), with average values ranging from just 4g CO2eq/kWh for hydropower to 1,001g CO2eq/kWh for coal, though there are significant regional and technological variations in values reported for the same energy source.

Gary Bilotta figure 2

Figure 2: Lifecycle assessments of greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation technologies (g CO2eq/kWh), displaying minimum, median and maximum reported values for each technology, based on IPCC literature reviews. Gary Bilotta, Author provided


Thirsty work

While it is important to consider these factors in policy making within the energy sector, it would be a wasted opportunity if policy makers were to overlook the other environmental footprints of electricity generation – and in particular the water footprint – when making decisions on which technologies to support and prioritise. The fairest way to compare electricity sources in terms of their water demand, is to consider their lifecycle water footprint – the consumptive demand of water for construction and operation of the plant, fuel supply, waste disposal and site decommissioning, per unit of net energy produced.

As can be seen from Figure 3, there are staggering differences in the water footprint of different electricity generation technologies. Minimum life cycle consumptive water footprints vary from 0.01 litres per kWh for wind energy, to 1.08 litres per kWh for storage-type hydroelectric power, though there are significant regional and technological variations in values reported for the same energy source. (Note that water footprint data represent the ‘blue’ water footprint, i.e. the consumption of water resources – from rivers, lakes and groundwater – whereby consumption refers to the volume of water that evaporates or is incorporated into a product. The blue water footprint is thus often smaller than the total water withdrawal, because generally part of the total water withdrawal returns to the ground or surface water.)

gary bilotta figure 3

Figure 3: Life-cycle assessments of consumptive water use (litres per kWh) of different electricity generation technologies, displaying minimum and maximum reported values for each technology based on data from Mekonnen et al (2015). Gary Bilotta, Author provided


When these differences between sources are scaled up by the number of units of electricity required to meet the needs of the global population, the implications of the global water footprint of energy generation are phenomenal. Failure to plan and consider the water demands of energy will likely result in insecure and unreliable energy supplies and negative effects on the other important users of freshwater.

We have recently observed the impacts of droughts on US energy supplies from thermoelectric plants and hydropower plants. If policy makers fail to take into account the links between energy and water, we may come to a point in many parts of the world where it is water availability that is the main determinant of the energy sources available for use.

This will inevitably force countries to make emergency decisions on the distribution of scarce water between generating electricity or producing food, maintaining health and sanitation, maintaining industrial production, and/or conserving nature.


Gary Bilotta is Principal Lecturer in Physical Geography and Environmental Science at the University of Brighton as well as Head of the Aquatic Research Centre ( This article was first published on The Conversation and is republished here with permission.

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 24, 2016 5:02 pm GMT

Gary, why not a word about desal?

Because nuclear desalination could be among the most significant sources of fresh water in the world, maybe “anti-nuclear activism” should be listed as one of the largest consumers.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Jun 25, 2016 12:39 am GMT

This post unfortunately overlooks the basic technologies available to reduce the water consumption of traditional power generators; coal, NG, petro, nuclear and geo/solar thermal. Why is current water consumption up to 10 L/KWhr. for fossil fuels, nuclear and geo/solar thermal? The answer has to do with minimizing capital/operating costs and maximizing thermal efficiencies; Btu/KWhr. If future water shortages are as alarming as some of this post’s referenced predictions/rough forecasts indicate, then new power plants must be designed to minimize ‘fresh water’ consumption. The basic technology transformation would be minimizing steam turbine power generator’s water usage by installing (air cooled) ‘finfan’ (on the turbine exhausts) steam condensers instead of current water cooled steam condensers. The costs will go up and thermally efficiencies down, but water usage can be reduced substantially. Unfortunately, Consumer power costs will also go up.

Another factor overlooked by this post is the fact that many power plants and industrial facilities use ‘recycled’ waste water for cooling. A prime example is the Palo Verde nuclear power plant in AZ (i.e. in the desert near where I live) which uses recycled waste water from the local community for its cooling.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Jun 25, 2016 4:08 am GMT

According to the water use chart, they will be selling farmland in Greenland and Antarctica to Californians before population grows at the given rate. Ignoring “food production” is a Donner Party leadership myth.

Robert Hargraves's picture
Robert Hargraves on Jun 26, 2016 11:35 am GMT

Thermal power plants generate electricity by extracting energy from the flow of heat from hot to cold (water, typically). The water is not necessarily consumed, but it is heated some. For example, a power plant like Vermont Yankee used water from the Connecticut river as the heat absorber, then put it back in the river. This water is not “consumed”.

Thermal plants with cooling towers do consume fresh water by evaporating it into the air to absorb heat. As in agriculture, the water is consumed, changing from liquid water to water vapor, which eventually falls back to earth as rain, somewhere else. Water is “consumed” in this sense. The Vermont Yankee power plant also had cooling towers that evaporated water to air in the summer, so that the river water was not excessively heated.

Many “environmentalists” are suing states and nuclear power plants to change from once-through cooling to evaporative cooling using fresh water. This increases water consumption at little benefit, except for some fish larvae that are otherwise damaged by increased temperature of direct once-through cooling.

Let’s not forget that fresh water is a limited resource, but there’s lots of salty ocean water used for power generation. Thermal power plants (coal, nuclear, etc) along the seaboard use salt water for cooling, putting it back into the ocean.

One thermal power plant in the US Western desert uses evaporative cooing of gray water piped in from a distant city’s waste water treatment plant.

Higher temperature thermal power plants, such as forth generation molten salt reactors, paradoxically need less cooling because they are more efficient. For example, the ThorCon hybrid thorium/uranium liquid fuel reactor needs 40% less cooling that a standard light water reactor. See

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