Impact of Renewable Energy on Thermoelectric Cooling Water Use


Water use and energy production are intrinsically linked, as thermoelectric cooling uses large quantities of water, often withdrawn from rivers and lakes. Water withdrawn for use in energy production makes up nearly half of all water withdrawals in the United States. Department of Energy researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change have developed a modeling tool to assess changes in water use with changes in the mix of renewable energy production. The model, called WiCTS (Withdrawal and Consumption for Thermoelectric Systems), estimates the amount of water used by a variety of electricity generation technologies at the regional level. Researchers used WiCTS in a case study to evaluate changes in future water use caused by increased use of renewable technologies, such as wind, solar, geothermal and nuclear. They found that at the national level, as the proportion of renewables in the electricity mix increases, water withdrawals decrease. At the state level, WiCTS’ ability to provide regional results reveals a more complex picture of future water use. Decreases in water withdrawals are concentrated in water-rich areas. Water-stressed areas, on the other hand, are more likely to see water withdrawals and consumption increase as the result of a switch to renewables. Coastal areas that rely on withdrawals of salt water for cooling will see an overall decrease in water withdrawals, but will see an increase in their fresh water withdrawals. These results suggest that in some regions, the use of dry cooling technologies, though more expensive, may be beneficial in limiting water scarcity.


Baker, J., K. Strzepek, W. Farmer, and A. Schlosser. 2014. “Quantifying the Impact of Renewable Energy Futures on Cooling Water Use,” Journal of the American Water Resources Association, 50(5):1289–1303, DOI: 10.1111/jawr.12188.