Energy: Draining Water and Wallets Since the Industrial Revolution

  • Posted on 21 June 2019
  • By Marcus Lin

Carbon footprints. We all know enough about carbon footprints. Higher consumption of energy and resources equals a larger carbon footprint. Simple enough right? But carbon footprints only address the byproduct of our energy consumption without considering what largely goes into producing it: water.
Water, though seemingly plentiful and limitless from the tap, is a relatively scarce resource. Salty seawater makes up most of the planet’s water and most of the desirable freshwater is holed up in glaciers and snowfields; water that is fresh and readily available is left to a mere 0.007 percent of all water on earth.
And people use a lot of water.
We drink lots of water. We clean and grow crops with it too. But have you ever thought about needing water to turn on your lights? Power plants need water, on a scale much larger than our homes. Many plants generate electricity by simply turning a turbine, doing so with running water or steam, traditionally heated with fossil fuels. The more electricity we demand the bigger these operations grow, then more water is needed to not only procure and refine more substances but also for more cleaning and maintenance. Even biofuels and bioplastics require large inputs of water just for agriculture and processing. Water usage is inevitable.
So to generate one kilowatt hour of electricity (kWh), hydroelectric plants use hundreds of gallons of water and though coal, nuclear, and natural gas use what seems like a fraction of that in the tens of gallons; solar panels and windmills use much less—a fifth of a single gallon.
0.2 gallons or less. A few glasses of water at best.
But solar panels and windmills make up the smallest fraction of our energy sources, so it comes out to an average of approximately 40 gallons of water per kilowatt hour in the United States. An average eight-minute shower uses 20. So a nice long shower can be equivalent to or more than the water used to produce one kWh—but don’t fret—that phone you’re using barely uses twice that amount in an entire year (so keep on scrolling away).
The large consumption of electricity in our homes comes in the form of heating, air conditioning, and lighting, with American households averaging 867 kWh per month. That’s a lot of showers, 30 thousand of them, coming from your electricity bill. Just transporting the water for your showers to you in Southern California requires additional energy equivalent to around a third of a household’s average electricity use.
At the end of the day, it takes water to generate energy and energy to transport water.
A zero-sum game, a lose-lose situation. So what can we do?
We can start by making informed and smarter energy decisions to not only turn towards renewable energy but also simply reduce our overall consumption.
Water efficient showerheads and energy efficient lightbulbs are a great start, cutting not only your consumption of water and electricity but also the size of your bills. We can see the depth of our impact, or our footprint, reflected in how much our bills are costing month-to-month.
So if you need a little motivation to start reducing, think about your wallet. Think about ways to reduce your heating, electricity, and water bills—those monthly dollar signs are direct feedback to how your changes are changing your consumption. Take a shorter shower or turn off those unused lights, Mother Earth and your wallet will thank you.
- Hydroelectric: 440 gallons water withdrawn for 1 kWh of electricity
- Coal: 16 gallons
- Nuclear: 14 gallons
- Natural Gas: 6.5 gallons
- Photovoltaic Solar: 0.2 gallons
- Wind: <0.061 gallons


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