The retirement of fossil fuel-fired power plants has been advocated by many as a means of containing greenhouse gas emissions and progressing toward a clean energy economy based on renewable sources. An additional benefit in the form of improved water management has been identified by researchers from Virginia Tech, University of Notre Dame and the U.S. Forest Service.

By combining nationwide retirement ages of U.S. fossil fuel-based power plants with water use rates and hydrologic modeling, these researchers estimate that by the time the last of these plants closes down by around 2065, 2.6 billion m3 (92 billion ft3) of water per year will be available for other uses. This equates to 687 billion gallons that fossil fuel-fired power plants currently consume annually.

Most of these facilities use water to cool their systems and scrub pollutants like sulfur dioxide from combustion exhaust. Electricity production currently accounts for approximately 40% of U.S. water withdrawals. About two-thirds of the estimated water use reduction could be realized as soon as 2035, the target date for total energy sector decarbonization set by the Biden administration.

The study published in the Journal of Hydrology suggests that most rivers with fossil fuel-fired power plants diverting or discharging water will have a net increase in annual streamflow, with the most pronounced increases occurring in the summer months. The retirement of these power generators can produce noticeable impacts on streamflow volumes up to hundreds of kilometers downstream.

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