Thermoelectric Power Water Use

Science Center Objects

Much of the electricity used in the United States and worldwide comes from thermoelectric power plants. This type of production includes fuels such as coal, oil, gas-fired, nuclear, and other lesser-used methods, such as geothermal and burning waste material. Production of electrical power results in one of the largest uses of water in the United States and worldwide. Water for thermoelectric power is used in generating electricity with steam-driven turbine generators.

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Thermoelectric power plant with cooling towers, smokestacks, and transmission towers

Thermoelectric power plant Bowen owned by Georgia Power Company, from Highway 113, Euharlee, Bartow County, Georgia. Plant Bowen is one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the United States. Plant Bowen uses recirculating cooling, decreasing the amount of water that must be withdrawn. (Credit: Alan Cressler, USGS)

One of the main uses of water in the power industry is to cool the power-producing equipment. Water used for this purpose does cool the equipment, but at the same time, the hot equipment heats up the cooling water! Overly hot water cannot be released back into the environment—fish downstream from a power plant releasing the hot water would get very upset. So, the used water must first be cooled. One way to do this is to build very large cooling towers and to spray the water inside the towers. Evaporation occurs and water is cooled. That is why large power-production facilities are often located near rivers, lakes, and the ocean.

 

Thermoelectric-power water withdrawals in the United States

Every five years, water withdrawal and use data at the county level are compiled into a national water-use data system, and state-level data are published in a national circular. 

Access the most recent National thermoelectric-power data, maps, and diagrams.

Map of total thermoelectric-power withdrawals by water quality and State, 2015

Map of total thermoelectric-power withdrawals, 2015.