Fossil fuel plants currently drain billions of dollars of water—switching over could help save the thirsty state.
Years of drought have left California so parched that governor Jerry Brown was finally forced to institute its first-ever mandatory statewide water restrictions. But those restrictions will primarily target urban and residential water use—golf courses, lawns, and water fountains. Agriculture, which consumes a far larger share of the state's water resources, will be left mostly alone. And so will one of California's least-known water sucks: its fossil-fueled energy supply.
The Golden State gets over half of its power from coal and natural gas plants—both of which are serious water drains. And according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), if California were to replace them with an energy supply that didn't require water—like wind power—the state could save billion gallons of water a year.
"Replacing all of California's remaining fossil generation with wind energy would cut water consumption by around 20 billion gallons annually, or roughly 45 days' worth of the savings provided by the household water use restrictions announced yesterday by Governor Jerry Brown," Michael Goggin, AWEA's senior director of research, told me in an email. (Goggin is factoring in the amount of water already saved by the state's fleet of turbines.)
The Union of Concerned Scientists' energy-water database shows that gas and coal plants currently suck down nearly 18 billion gallons of water. Wind farms already save the state about 2.5 billion gallons of water a year, by eliminating the need to rely on hydro-hungry gas and coal plants. Phasing out the rest of the fossil fleet would save the state an additional 17.7 billion gallons of water per year—for a total of over 20.2 billion gallons annually.
"Using wind energy directly offsets water use at fossil-fired power plants," Goggin explained. "Most fossil-fired power plants evaporate large amounts of water as part of their cooling systems. If you've ever noticed steam billowing from a power plant, you're seeing water being consumed." Which is to say nothing of the vast amounts of water used to extract natural gas from the earth in hydraulic fracturing processes.
"Using wind energy, which needs no water to operate, allows those power plants to operate less, reducing their water use as well as their fuel use and emissions," he said.
Some experts say that it's entirely possible that California could run on a mix of wind, solar (which requires some water to keep the panels clean and cool), and other 100 percent renewable resources. AWEA is a wind industry trade group, so it clearly has a horse in this race. But it's hard not to argue the fundamentals. Such a large-scale transition from fossil plants to clean power would be expensive
"Greater use of wind energy will play a key role in California's efforts to both prevent and adapt to climate change," Goggin said, "by reducing carbon pollution to prevent climate change, but also reducing water usage so the state can better cope with climate change-related droughts."