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The bottom of a drained carp pond near the cooling towers of the Jänschwalde lignite-fired power plant of in Brandenburg, Germany, on November 30, 2018. Photo: Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images

In the U.S., 45% of the water pulled from reservoirs, rivers, oceans and underground aquifers is used to cool thermal (fossil fuel) and nuclear power plants for electricity production. Of that water, 73% is fresh, amounting to significantly more than is used for agricultural irrigation — and that still doesn't include water used in processes like fracking to acquire the fuel in the first place.

Why it matters: Although power plants have made small efficiency improvements, they continue to use enormous amounts of water. As demand grows in cities and on farms, competition for water among humans, agriculture and power plants is becoming more intense, especially in drought-prone regions and large population centers.

Background: Coal, natural gas and nuclear power produce a combined 84% of U.S. electricity at a cost of about 30 trillion gallons of fresh and saline water per year. This intense water usage presents several problems:

  1. Water used for cooling can be lost to evaporation, and the water that's sent back into the environment may be contaminated, or so hot that it harms fish and wildlife.
  2. This consumption can create a localized crisis if a region suffers a prolonged drought. Many cities in the southwest U.S. will face water shortages over the next two decades, as Lubbock, Texas, already has.

Yes, but: In addition to emitting far less carbon than traditional sources, renewable energy uses much less water, with wind turbines and solar panels employing almost
negligible amounts. Fortunately, drought-prone areas also tend to be conducive to solar energy generation.

The bottom line: The growth of renewable energy hasn’t been enough to compensate for increasing water use. As governments and corporations look to reduce their carbon emissions from power production — as Facebook and the state of California announced in August they plan to do — they should not neglect renewable energy's freshwater savings.

Luciano Castillo is the Kenninger Professor of Renewable Energy and Power Systems at Purdue University's School of Mechanical Engineering. Walter Gutierrez is a visiting scholar at the school.

Go deeper

Updated 5 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

  1. Health: Coronavirus cases hold steady at 65,000 per day — CDC declares racism "a serious public health threat" — WHO official: Brazil is dealing with "raging inferno" of a COVID outbreak.
  2. Vaccines: America may be close to hitting a vaccine wall — Pfizer asks FDA to expand COVID vaccine authorization to adolescents — CDC says Johnson & Johnson vaccine supply will drop 80% next week.
  3. Economy: Treasury says over 156 million stimulus payments sent out since March — More government spending expected as IMF projects 6% global GDP growth.
  4. Politics: Supreme Court ends California's coronavirus restrictions on home religious meetings.
  5. World: Iran tightens COVID restrictions amid fourth wave of pandemic.
  6. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.
Miriam Kramer, author of Space
Updated 1 hour ago - Science

NASA's delays Mars helicopter test flight

Ingenuity (left) with Perseverance on Mars. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA announced Saturday it rescheduled its Ingenuity Mars helicopter's first experimental flight, originally planned for Sunday.

The latest: "During a high-speed spin test of the rotors on Friday, the command sequence controlling the test ended early due to a 'watchdog' timer expiration," NASA said in a statement. "This occurred as it was trying to transition the flight computer from ‘Pre-Flight’ to ‘Flight’ mode."

2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Ohio Senate candidate Josh Mandel escorted out of RNC retreat

Ohio Republican Senate candidate Josh Mandel. Photo: Chris Maddaloni / Getty Images

During this weekend’s highly anticipated donor retreat hosted by the Republican National Committee in Palm Beach, Ohio Senate candidate Josh Mandel was escorted off the premises while his primary opponent, Jane Timken, was allowed to stay, two sources with direct knowledge of the situation tell Axios.

What we’re hearing: The invitation-only event is taking place at the Four Seasons Resort, and the RNC reserved the entire hotel. While Timken, former Ohio GOP chair, was invited to the event “because she is a major donor” — Mandel was not, so he was asked to leave, according to one of the sources.