Coal Fired Power Generation Isn’t Just Filthy, It’s Thirsty Too

It takes a lot of water to generate electricity using coal – and gas or nuclear power too –  many times the amount required by wind or solar power.
   
A new report titled “Burning Our Rivers” states thermo-electric energy production; which includes coal, nuclear and natural gas, is the fastest growing use of freshwater resources in the USA.
   
The report’s authors calculate that in 2009 the water footprint associated with the average U.S. household’s monthly energy use was an astounding 150,769 litres – five times more than the direct residential water use of the same household, which in itself is rather disturbing.
   
What the market considers “least cost” electricity is often the most water intensive. For example, coal fired power generation water withdrawal  comes to around 60,763 litres per megawatt hour and actual consumption approximately 2,619 litres per megawatt hour. This includes all water usage activities – from the mining of coal through to combustion.
   
Solar PV (solar panels) are far more water friendly way to generate electricity – 874 litres withdrawal and under 10 litres consumption per megawatt hour.
  
While the difference between coal fired power water withdrawal and consumption is significant; much of the water being returned to the local environment is contaminated in some way. Coal’s impact on water quality also goes far beyond the direct activities associated with procuring and burning it. The report notes:
    
“Arguably, every body of surface water in the country has been impacted by mercury contamination from coal-fired plants”.
    
The findings of the study have important implications for our own country. While for the most part Australia has enjoyed (and sometimes suffered) major rainfall over the last couple of years, reliable rainfall isn’t something Australia is well recognised for. With signs pointing to Australia heading toward another El Nino event; water security related issues may soon again be at the fore.
     
Burning Our Rivers was published by River Network and can be viewed in full here (PDF).