Energy-Water Nexus:

Improvements to Federal Water Use Data Would Increase Understanding of Trends in Power Plant Water Use

GAO-10-23: Published: Oct 16, 2009. Publicly Released: Oct 16, 2009.

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In 2000, thermoelectric power plants accounted for 39 percent of total U.S. freshwater withdrawals. Traditionally, power plants have withdrawn water from rivers and other water sources to cool the steam used to produce electricity, so that it may be reused to produce more electricity. Some of this water is consumed, and some is discharged back to a water source. In the context of growing demands for both water and electricity, this report discusses (1) approaches to reduce freshwater use by power plants and their drawbacks, (2) states' consideration of water use when reviewing proposals to build power plants, and (3) the usefulness of federal water data to experts and state regulators. GAO reviewed federal water data and studies on cooling technologies. GAO interviewed federal officials, as well as officials from seven selected states.

Advanced cooling technologies that rely on air to cool part or all of the steam used in generating electricity and alternative water sources such as treated effluent can reduce freshwater use by thermoelectric power plants. Use of such approaches may lead to environmental benefits from reduced freshwater use, as well as increase developer flexibility in locating a plant. However, these approaches also present certain drawbacks. For example, the use of advanced cooling technologies may result in energy production penalties and higher costs. Similarly, the use of alternative water sources may result in adverse effects on cooling equipment or regulatory compliance issues. Power plant developers must weigh these drawbacks with the benefits of reduced freshwater use when determining which approaches to pursue. Consideration of water use by proposed power plants varies in the states GAO contacted, but the extent of state oversight is influenced by state water laws, related state regulatory policies, and additional layers of state regulatory review. For example, California and Arizona--states that historically faced constrained water supplies, have taken formal steps aimed at minimizing freshwater use at power plants. In contrast, officials in five other states GAO contacted said that their states had not developed official policies regarding water use by power plants and, in some cases, did not require a state permit for water use by new power plants. Federal agencies collect national data on water availability and water use; however, of these data, state water agencies rely on federal water availability data when evaluating power plants' proposals to use freshwater more than federal water use data. Water availability data are collected by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) through stream flow gauges, groundwater studies, and monitoring stations. In contrast, federal data on water use are primarily used by experts, federal agencies, and others to identify industry trends. However, these data users identified limitations with the federal water use data that make them less useful for conducting trend analyses and tracking industry changes. For example, the Department of Energy's (DOE) Energy Information Administration (EIA) does not systematically collect information on the use of advanced cooling technologies and other data it collects are incomplete. Similarly, USGS discontinued distribution of data on water consumption by power plants and now only provides information on water withdrawals. Finally, neither EIA nor USGS collect data on power plant developers' use of alternative water sources, which some experts believe is a growing trend in the industry. Because federal data sources are a primary source of national data on water use by various sectors, data users told GAO that without improvements to these data, it becomes more difficult for them to conduct comprehensive analyses of industry trends and limits understanding of changes in the industry.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: To address our recommendation, in October 2010, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) released revised forms for collecting data on power plant cooling systems and water use. Specifically, EIA's revised forms include reporting codes for alternative cooling technologies, such as hybrid and dry cooling systems.

    Recommendation: To improve the usefulness of the data collected by EIA and better inform the nation's understanding of power plant water use and how it affects water availability, and as part of its ongoing review of the data it collects about power plants, the Administrator of EIA should consider adding cooling technology reporting codes for alternative cooling technologies, such as dry and hybrid cooling, or take equivalent steps to ensure these cooling technologies can be identified in EIA's database.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: Energy Information Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: To address our recommendation, in October 2010, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) released revised forms for collecting data on power plant cooling systems and water use. Specifically, EIA now requires all nuclear and combined cycle plants of a certain size to report cooling system and water use information.

    Recommendation: To improve the usefulness of the data collected by EIA and better inform the nation's understanding of power plant water use and how it affects water availability, and as part of its ongoing review of the data it collects about power plants, the Administrator of EIA should consider expanding reporting of water use and cooling technology data to include all significant types of thermoelectric power plants, particularly by reinstating data collection for nuclear plants and initiating collection of data for all combined cycle natural gas plants.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: Energy Information Administration

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: To address our recommendation, in October 2010, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) released revised forms for collecting data on power plant cooling systems and water use. Specifically, EIA's revised forms provide a standardized format through which power plant operators can report the source and type of cooling water they use, including providing detail on alternative water sources like reclaimed water.

    Recommendation: To improve the usefulness of the data collected by EIA and better inform the nation's understanding of power plant water use and how it affects water availability, and as part of its ongoing review of the data it collects about power plants, the Administrator of EIA should consider collecting and reporting data on the use of alternative water sources, such as treated effluent and groundwater that is not suitable for drinking or irrigation, by individual power plants.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: Energy Information Administration

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our recommendation, in FY 2010, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) contacted key stakeholders it identified, including USGS, to notify them of EIA's proposed changes to its data collection forms. USGS responded to the Office of Management and Budget -- a participant in this triennial forms review process -- with comments on how to improve the water and cooling system data.

    Recommendation: To improve the usefulness of the data collected by EIA and better inform the nation's understanding of power plant water use and how it affects water availability, and as part of its ongoing review of the data it collects about power plants, the Administrator of EIA should consider including USGS and other key users of power plant water use and cooling system data as part of EIA's triennial review process.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: Energy Information Administration

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USGS has made substantial progress in addressing this recommendation. According to agency officials, USGS has prepared two reports to provide additional information about alternative water sources. Specifically, USGS prepared its 5-year water use report, which will provide additional detail on alternative water sources, as well as a separate scientific investigations report that will provide detailed information on consumptive water use at individual U.S. power plants.

    Recommendation: To improve the usefulness of the data collected by USGS and better inform the nation's understanding of power plant water use and how it affects water availability, the Secretary of the Interior should consider expanding efforts to disseminate available data on the use of alternative water sources, such as treated effluent and groundwater that is not suitable for drinking or irrigation, by thermoelectric power plants, to the extent that this information becomes available from EIA.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In FY 2014, USGS announced that for the first time since 1995 it would reinstate reporting of water consumed in the production of thermoelectric power. Specifically, in November 2013, USGS released a report "Methods for Estimating Water Consumption for Thermoelectric Power Plants in the United States." According to USGS officials, USGS will also include water consumption estimates at thermoelectric power plants in future "Estimated Water Use" reports.

    Recommendation: To improve the usefulness of the data collected by USGS and better inform the nation's understanding of power plant water use and how it affects water availability, the Secretary of the Interior should consider reinstating collection and distribution of water consumption data at thermoelectric power plants.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our recommendation, in FY 2010, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) and USGS held two meetings to establish a process for regular coordination with each other and other stakeholders to discuss how to improve data collection and dissemination. The two agencies have developed a list of 18 outside agencies and experts to involve in future meetings.

    Recommendation: To improve the overall quality of data collected on water use from power plants, the EIA and USGS should establish a process for regularly coordinating with each other, water and electricity industry experts, environmental groups, academics, and other federal agencies, to identify and implement steps to improve data collection and dissemination.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: Energy Information Administration

  8. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our recommendation, in FY 2010, EIA and USGS held two meetings to establish a process for regular coordination with each other and other stakeholders to discuss how to improve data collection and dissemination. The two agencies have developed a list of 18 outside agencies and experts to involve in future meetings.

    Recommendation: To improve the overall quality of data collected on water use from power plants, the EIA and USGS should establish a process for regularly coordinating with each other, water and electricity industry experts, environmental groups, academics, and other federal agencies, to identify and implement steps to improve data collection and dissemination.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior: Geological Survey

 

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