Southeast U.S. Water Goes to Power Plants, Report Says

Water and Watts , the third report in a three-part series about energy issues in the region, notes that approximately two out of every three gallons of freshwater withdrawn in the Southeast United States are sent to thermoelectric power plants, which are mostly coal-fired and nuclear.

These plants require about 40 billion gallons of freshwater each day -- nearly equal to the total daily freshwater withdrawals required to meet public supply needs for the entire nation.

“Reducing electricity demands is not only critical to addressing our energy challenges, but also to meeting regional water needs,” said Ben Taube, executive director at the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance and a co-author of the new report. “Lawmakers at the federal, state, and local levels should consider policies that create incentives for the efficient use of both water and energy, especially in light of recent droughts.”

Water availability has become a more common source of conflict between states in the region. Alabama, Florida, and Georgia have fought over control of the Apalachicola/Chattahoochee/Flint River Basin and similar issues arose in North and South Carolina over the Catawba River.

Looking ahead, population growth in the Southeast could lead to a 30 percent increase in thermoelectric power generation by 2025. Without policy action to encourage efficiency and water-efficient power production, this higher electricity demand could further exacerbate water scarcity problems.

“Building more thermoelectric power plants that run on nuclear and coal is simply not sustainable,” said Dennis Creech, executive director at Southface, another report co-author. “Fortunately, we see that efficiency upgrades and conservation efforts can reduce demands on both energy and water resources, while saving consumers money on utility bills.”

The report notes that the average household in the region is spending about $250 each year on energy to heat the water they use for dishwashers, clothes washers, showers, and other needs. Upgrading just half the households in the Southeast with WaterSense labeled faucets or faucet aerators, for one example, could save residents an estimated $40 million on their water bills and another $80 million on their energy bills.

Any water efficiency improvements also help reduce demands on city water and wastewater treatment facilities. The energy needed to operate these facilities can amount to as much as 30 percent of a city’s total energy bill.

“These relationships between energy and water should not be overlooked in the Southeast,” said Eliot Metzger, an energy expert at WRI and co-author of the report. “Policymakers should take steps to promote water and energy savings, starting with near-term actions that make good economic and environmental sense.”

Policy and investment opportunities highlighted in the report focus on realizing both energy and water benefits. To start, state regulators must evaluate the impacts of new electric power supplies upon water, and prioritize options, including efficiency, with minimal or no water requirements.

Strong leadership is also needed with energy and water efficiency requirements for public buildings. Several states - including Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia - have policies that encourage efficiency in state buildings. Additional policies and procurement guidelines for high efficiency products, like those bearing the Energy Star logo or the U.S. EPA’s WaterSense label, can lead to additional energy, water and cost savings.

Financial incentives can help promote options like solar water heaters, which use heat from the sun to provide 40 to 80 percent of water heating needs. These systems can save homeowners $150 or more in energy costs each year. State tax incentives and additional federal tax credits can help encourage more homeowners to install solar hot water systems.

Finally, states and utilities can also lead information and awareness campaigns to help educate homeowners and businesses about the connections between energy and water use.

Featured Webinar