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Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative

Cooling Technologies
Once-through Cooling pond Recirculating Dry-cooled

Withdrawal (millions of gallons/year)
<50,000 <250,000 <500,000 <750,000 <1,000,000

Cooling Technologies
Once-through Cooling pond Recirculating Dry-cooled

Figure 3.

Power Plant Water Withdrawals: East versus West

Generation (billions of MWh)

Withdrawal Share of Total Generation (millions of gallons/year)
<50,000 2% <250,000 <500,000 <750,000

Water withdrawals in 2008 were much higher east than west of the Mississippi. That is because plants with once-through cooling—which withdraw huge volumes of water—produced a much larger share of electricity in the eastern half of the country, and because overall electricity production was also higher east of the Mississippi. Plants with once-through cooling were located chiefly along the coasts, on the shores of the Great Lakes, and on large rivers and reservoirs.
Note: Based on median NREL values for the use of both freshwater and seawater. Cooling ponds may operate as once-through systems, recirculating systems, or a combination of the two.


13% 30%






East of the Mississippi

West of the Mississippi

Percentage of total generation, for each cooling technology

and some types of concentrating solar power plants—all of which use steam to drive turbines—have water intensities in the range of nuclear or coal. Some renewable energy power plants with turbines employ dry cooling, and those require minimal amounts of water.

Cooling Technologies across the Country
To some degree, power plant cooling systems match local water resources. We found that 86 percent of plants drawing water from the sea in 2008 used once-through cooling, taking advantage of their access to an essentially limitless resource. Most inland power plants with once-through systems were located in the eastern half

of the country, where surface water is generally more plentiful (Figure 3). Power plants in the West, in contrast, relied heavily on recirculating systems, as those withdraw much less water. Dry-cooled power plants were also more common in the West, although they accounted for only 4 percent of the region’s electricity production. Average freshwater withdrawal intensities for each state reflected these regional differences. Intensities were lowest in western states, while areas of high intensity were scattered around the East, including in the Great Lakes states, Missouri, Tennessee, Virginia, and the Carolinas (Figure 4).