Wind Energy Adding Water to Its Sales Pitch

on April 16, 2015 at 12:02 PM


U.S. wind energy industry leaders went to Texas on Wednesday to release their annual market report and highlight wind’s continuing successes and benefits there. A couple of their selling points were familiar – cheap and clean power – but there was another item that got big emphasis this year, and you’re likely to hear a lot more about it in the future: water savings.

With 1,811 megawatts, Texas by far led the nation in new capacity installed in 2014, a year the American Wind Energy Association described as a “bounce back” from 2013, when the comings-and-goings of the production tax credit left the industry with a barren project pipeline. In all, 4,854 MW of wind power came online in the U.S. in 2014, up from 1,087 MW in 2013, driving the U.S. total to 65,877 MW.

wind capacity

Source: AWEA


More than a fifth of that U.S. total – 14,098 MW – is in Texas, which got 39,371 gigawatt-hours of electricity from all its spinning turbines in 2014. That was 9 percent of its electricity and equal to the amount of power used by 3.6 million U.S. households, AWEA said.

And then there’s the water issue. Water has always been a card in AWEA’s deck of wind’s advantages, but not a prominent one. The organization didn’t waste much time, however, on Wednesday in asserting that wind energy saved 68 billion gallons of water nationwide in 2014, and 13 billion of that came in Texas.


“Particularly in drought-prone areas, wind energy is really providing an extra value,” said Hannah Hunt, a research analyst with AWEA.

Texas would qualify as a drought-prone area. In February, the Lower Colorado River Authority said the water shortfall in the Highland Lakes, which supplies a lot of Central Texas, including Austin, now constituted “the most severe drought the region has experienced since construction of the lakes began in the 1930s.”

In famously drought-stricken California, which has less wind than Texas and less water-intensive coal to displace, AWEA put the water savings at 2.5 billion gallons.

That’s not a huge amount in a state that uses something in the neighborhood of 38 billion gallons of water a day, but it’s more water than is used to produce bottled water in the state, and that’s sure getting a lot of attention.

Water could be a winning issue for wind because thermal generation from coal and natural gas can be huge water consumers in their cooling processes, while wind uses virtually none. This isn’t just AWEA’s view; scientists at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have said bluntly, “Non-thermal renewable technologies, such as wind and PV systems, consume minimal amounts of water per unit of generation.”

wind and water

Source: AWEA


AWEA says it calculates water savings using an EPA tool called AVERT to determine which fossil-fuel plants are displaced by wind, and then multiplies the displacement information “by power plant-specific water consumption rates in the Union of Concerned Scientists database, to arrive at total water savings.”

Still, despite its water-use advantage, whether wind continues to grow in Texas and California is a bit of an open question. In California, solar PV (itself a big water saver) has become the dominant source of new renewable energy. And in Texas, a new political challenge to wind has just arisen.

Wind owes its success in Texas in part to a state renewable portfolio standard that dates back to 1999, when George W. Bush was governor, and that has survived and even grown through successive Republican administrations.

This week, however, the Texas Senate passed a bill that would not only end the renewable portfolio standard, but also shut down the state’s Competitive Renewable Energy Zone initiative, which has vastly beefed up the state’s electricity transmission system and opened the door for expanded wind development in the windy west, away from population centers.

It’s not exactly clear how much of a challenge these moves would pose to the further development of wind in Texas – the RPS is fulfilled and CREZ is largely complete. But the Wind Coalition, an advocacy group that focuses on the Southwest, said that it could stop 2,000 MW of transmission capacity additions, while sending “the misguided message that Texas will continue to support its energy industries, just not it’s renewable ones.”

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