Exploring the Water-Thermoelectric Power Nexus
In 2005, thermoelectric power accounted for 41% of all freshwater withdrawals and roughly 3% of all consumptive use in the United States. With the demand for electricity projected to increase by 24% by 2035 concerns have been raised as to the availability of water for this growing industry; particularly, as the siting of several new thermoelectric facilities have been challenged on the basis of water supply. To address this concern we estimate the potential impact of water availability on future expansion of the thermoelectric power industry. Specifically, both the extent and location of thermoelectric developments at risk due to limited fresh water supply is estimated for a variety of alternative energy futures that differ according to the assumed mix of fuels utilized in new plant construction. According to the analyzed scenarios water consumption for thermoelectric power generation is projected to increase by 36–43% between 1995 and 2035, with much of this development expected to occur in basins with rapidly growing demands in the nonthermoelectric sectors. To identify where this thermoelectric development might be problematic, projected future thermoelectric production has been mapped onto basins subject to limited water availability. For the purposes of this study, water availability is defined as a local ratio of water demand to physical water supply. Results suggest that 10–19% of all new thermoelectric power production is likely to be sited in watersheds with limited surface and/or groundwater availability. These problematic watersheds are largely located in the West.