Energy Uses and Policy Implications of Our Diminishing Fresh Water Resources

Water is our most abundant natural resource, making up 70% of the surface of the Earth. 150,000 gallons flow over Niagara Falls every second [1]. However, fresh and accessible water makes up less than .007% of our total water resources [2]. Production of energy and electricity are straining our fresh water supply. Particularly, open loop energy production systems consume more water than closed loop systems. Let’s take a look at how much water is used by our energy generation processes, going from worst to best in terms of fresh water use:

  1. Corn-Ethanol Biomass: 1000+ gallons of fresh water/gallon of fuel produced or per 1 MMBtu (open-loop system)
  2. Geothermal: 700-1400 gallons of fresh water/1 MWh of fuel (open-loop)
  3. Nuclear: 800 gallons of fresh water/1 MWh of fuel (open or closed loop; uses the highest quantity of fresh water for any thermal power generation cycle)
  4. Coal with Carbon-Capture Sequestration: 800 gallons of fresh water/ 1 MWh of fuel (open or closed loop)
  5. Conventional Petroleum: 100 gallons of fresh water/ 1 MWh of fuel (open-loop)
  6. Natural Gas with Hydraulic Fracturing: 50 gallons of fresh water/1 MWh of fuel (open-loop)
  7. Wind & Solar: 0 gallons of fresh water/ 1 MWh of fuel [3]
  8. Algae: 350 gallons of fresh water/1 MWh of fuel produced (closed-loop), but can be used in contaminated/polluted  fresh water [4]

However, our conventional energy generation sources are only one piece of the policy pie. While thermoelectric power generation accounts for 41% of the U.S.’s annual fresh water use, agriculture and the public use 37% and 12%, respectively [5]. Furthermore, while this graph shows our fresh water use by percentage, the overall nominal amount of fresh water we use is dramatically increasing. With the introduction of corn ethanol as a fuel source, the irrigation sector of fresh water use is increasing. As new coal, nuclear and other thermoelectric power generation facilities come online they will consume more fresh water overall. And as the human population continues to grow we will consume more and more fresh water [6].

Additionally, water in the U.S. is under-priced [7], which leads to much greater consumption [8]. The U.S. has one of the cheapest prices for fresh water in the world, with the average household paying $1.10/m2 of water. Contrast our water prices to those in France, where homeowners pay over $3.00/m2 for fresh water. Our low price of fresh water has contributed to our highest-in-the-world water consumption. The U.S. uses about 1.5 times as much water as Europe, and nearly 8 times that of Africa.

Looking towards the future, there are three key economic, ecological and geopolitical policy measures that can be implemented. (1) Include costs of water when considering energy uses. (2) Improve the efficiency of water use and reuse. (3) Focus on water conservation. While future technologies will help unlock more water supply, it will come at a much higher cost.


[1]-Gleick, P. The World’s Water. N.p.: Island Press, 2000. Print.

[2]-Investments, Fidelity. The World’s Water – Fidelity Investments: Thinking Big . YouTube. N.p., 27 Feb. 2012. Web. 2 Mar. 2012. <

[3]-Mielke, Erik, Laura Anadon, and Venkatesh Narayanamurti. Water Consumption of Energy Resource Extraction, Processing, and Conversion. Cambridge: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2010. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Web. 2 Mar. 2012. <>.

[4]-Parry, Wynne. “Algae: Biofuel of the Future?” LiveScience. LiveScience, June 2010. Web. 3 Mar. 2012. <>.


[6]- Postel, S.L., G.C. Daily and P.R. Ehrlich.  1996.  Human appropriation of renewable fresh water.  Science 271:785

[7]-Jones, Tom. “Pricing water.” OECD Observer Mar. 2003: n. pag. OECD Observer. Web. 7 Mar. 2012. <>.

[8]- Vitousek, P M, P R Ehrlich, and P A Matson. “Human appropriation of the products of photosynthesis.” BioScience 36 (1986): 368-373. Print.


1 Comment

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One response to “Energy Uses and Policy Implications of Our Diminishing Fresh Water Resources

  1. energyintheenvironment

    First of all, I’m going to get a little nit-picky on you and point out that solar does in fact use water (as shown in your graph right below your point about solar and wind using 0 gal/MWh). Solar PV is what’s shown using 0 gal. CSP uses water. But that is beside the point.

    How would you propose the US take water costs into account when planning for energy uses? To me it is obvious that cost of water get scaled with amount used, but should it be weighted like water use tax in some cities in Texas where high water users pay much more money? (example: San Antonio water use has tiers where their highest level users pay exorbitant amounts of money for the water they use and end up basically paying for new infrastructure). In that case, power plants specifically will get charged much much more than other users. This added cost would get shuttled onto the energy company and then onto the citizens. With the debacle we’re having in Austin these days, I don’t know that communities would jump at the chance to factor water into their energy costs just to pay more for energy. So if citizens won’t do the jumping, what level of government would implement the policy? And how much does water even cost?
    Water law around the country is not compatible. States have different policies guarding their water. Texas doesn’t have a set price for water. Municipalities set the drinking water and wastewater prices, but energy companies don’t regularly use treated tap water. And if they use reuse water from wastewater plants, they probably have some specific contract about using that water that wouldn’t apply to any other user. My point in this case is that water price does not exist for our nation. How do we set a price to charge energy? By municipality? By county? By state? By river authority?

    Considering France is smaller than Texas, I think it is probably easier for the country to set a price on water. But in a country so massive as the US where water is more scarce and thus more valuable in some places than others, I don’t believe water can possibly have a national price. Do you think energy should be more expensive in water scarce areas?

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