Regardless of your opinion on the hotly debated topic of gas versus electric stovetops, there has certainly been an uptick in adoption of electric technologies in recent years. The prevalence of electric car chargers, heat pumps, and electric stoves is only picking up pace thanks to legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which subsidizes the upfront cost of these technologies in the United States.
Simply put, homes are needing more and more electricity. Total global electricity demand is expected to grow an average of 1.7% a year, in part due to residential trends. Behind the scenes, electric utilities are striving to bolster their electricity supply to meet the growing demand while also juggling a complex shift to renewable energy. The water sector should take note, as water is intrinsically linked to electric power generation. Just to give a few examples: gas power plants boil water to create steam to turn turbines and nuclear power plants withdraw water to cool nuclear reactors.
Excluding water used in hydropower, Bluefield’s new Water for Power Forecast estimates that 206.5 trillion gallons of water will be used to produce power around the world in 2023. That’s more than enough water to fill California’s Lake Tahoe five times, 313 million Olympic sized swimming pools, or eight times the amount of water that flows over Niagara Falls every year. The United States alone is forecasted to use 48 trillion gallons of water in 2023. Thankfully, most of this water is returned to watersheds and is then available to other users. Only 4.3% of water is consumed during the power generation process, which is water that is used or evaporated for cooling. But what are the impacts of growing electrification on water in the coming years? And how are the water sector’s opportunities in power changing?
A Slow Shift to Renewable Energy Will Reduce the Power Sector’s Water Needs. When it comes to water intensity, not all energy sources are created equal. Coal, oil, and nuclear power plants require the most water, while renewables like wind and solar require very little. As power producers build out more renewable capacity and decommission older thermoelectric power plants, the power sector will need less and less water. Globally, Bluefield expects the total water usage by the power sector to drop 3.3% between 2023 and 2030. Usage in the United States is forecasted to decline even faster, dropping 16.2% in the same period. These declines are expected despite growing overall electricity demands.
Water Scarcity is a Real Threat to the Power Sector. A switch away from fossil fuels is good news from a water management standpoint, as the power sector has struggled to deal with water scarcity challenges in recent years. For example, persistent drought led the French energy supplier EDF to reduce output at its nuclear power plants on the Rhône River. Drought can also create a positive feedback loop where lower hydropower generation leads to a higher reliance on water-intensive fossil fuels such as coal. This occurred in China’s Sichuan Province, where coal power plants were operated to fill the void left by lower hydropower generation. This substitution only exacerbated the underlying water shortages, as it consumed the same water that could go to homes, agriculture, and other water uses. These persistent droughts will raise the need for water solutions providers to implement water reuse projects for thermoelectric power plants.
Opportunities Arise to Fill Water Management Void. Thanks to the clean energy transition, the traditional ways that the power sector has relied on water are changing. But other opportunities are emerging to fill the void. Green hydrogen development will require significant amounts of ultrapure water for production, upstream mining for electric vehicle batteries, and solar cells continue to require water solutions, and remediation of coal ash pond waste from past coal generation will grow with regulatory enforcement.
The global power sector has traditionally been slow to evolve but the signs of changing water needs are clear. Geopolitical, environmental, and regulatory pressures are all factoring into new nuanced opportunities, and Bluefield will continue to closely track these market shifts.