Research Papers: Kelly T. Sanders

Water Use in the United States Energy System: A National Assessment and Unit Process Inventory of Water Consumption and Withdrawals

By Kelly T. Sanders, Emily Grubert

Environmental Science & Technology


The United States (US) energy system is a large water user, but the nature of that use is poorly understood. To support resource comanagement and fill this noted gap in the literature, this work presents detailed estimates for US-based water consumption and withdrawals for the US energy system as of 2014, including both intensity values and the first known estimate of total water consumption and withdrawal by the US energy system. We address 126 unit processes, many of which are new additions to the literature, differentiated among 17 fuel cycles, five life cycle stages, three water source categories, and four levels of water quality. Overall coverage is about 99% of commercially traded US primary energy consumption with detailed energy flows by unit process. Energy-related water consumption, or water removed from its source and not directly returned, accounts for about 10% of both total and freshwater US water consumption. Major consumers include biofuels (via irrigation), oil (via deep well injection, usually of nonfreshwater), and hydropower (via evaporation and seepage). The US energy system also accounts for about 40% of both total and freshwater US water withdrawals, i.e., water removed from its source regardless of fate. About 70% of withdrawals are associated with the once-through cooling systems of approximately 300 steam cycle power plants that produce about 25% of electricity.

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