Skip to Highlights
Highlights

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 Traditionally, power plants have withdrawn water from rivers and other water sources to cool the steam used to produce electricity, so that it may be reused to produce more electricity.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.

Skip to Recommendations

Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Energy Information Administration 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.
Energy Information Administration 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.
Energy Information Administration 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.
Energy Information Administration 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.
Department of the Interior 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.
Closed - Implemented
USGS took steps to report additional data on use of alternative water sources by thermoelectric power plants. Specifically, in 2014, USGS prepared a scientific investigations report that provides information on water consumption and withdrawal at U.S. thermoelectric power plants, "Withdrawal and Consumption of Water by Thermoelectric Power Plants in the United States, 2010." This report, and accompanying individual plant data, includes information on the use of alternative water sources by these plants.
Department of the Interior 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.
Energy Information Administration 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.
Geological Survey 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.

Full Report