Guest Column | March 18, 2024

Sustainable Living: How Energy Choices Influence Water Quality

By Tyler Castle

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The increased investment in earth-friendly energy sources such as solar and wind is essential to combating climate change, but it also has vital impacts on water use. A Congressional report notes that the energy sector is the “fastest-growing water consumer in the United States” and that the sector’s water usage is projected to rise 50% from 2005 to 2030.

As climate change impacts become more pronounced and access to fresh water becomes a growing concern, communities need to support their water conservation and wastewater reclamation efforts with renewable energy initiatives. Otherwise, our energy and water usage risks a negative feedback cycle, where energy production further strains our water supplies, and reduced water reserves further threaten our energy security.  

Understanding this relationship is the first step toward taking effective action for both reducing carbon emissions and protecting our freshwater reserves.

How Climate Change Affects Water Quality

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2023 was the fifth warmest year on record. The increase in temperatures caused by climate change brought about several significant climate anomalies related to either extended drought or extreme storm conditions.


In 2023, an extreme heat wave blasted the American Southwest and much of Texas with record-setting highs for the entire month of July. That extreme heat event is far from extraordinary, as year after year of hot and dry temperatures have taken their toll on rivers and water reservoirs in the region.

According to the U.S. EPA, the Southwest has experienced drought conditions since 2000. These conditions have given rise to the threat of an emerging megadrought that could hasten the aridification of the Southwest. It’s a potentially catastrophic situation, with one study showing that the last two decades may have been the region’s driest period in over 1,200 years.

Storms and Flooding

While some areas of the country continue to struggle with droughts, climate change contributed to several significant storm events that brought record precipitation to parts of the U.S. Historic rainfall and severe storms in 2023 heavily impacted both the East and West Coasts, resulting in 28 confirmed climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion.

Six states now count 2023 as one of the top 10 wettest years, while storm events in Florida, California, Kentucky, and Illinois caused dangerous flash-floods and mudslides. Changing weather patterns, including warmer air conditions that can hold higher amounts of moisture, are greatly increasing the risk of flooding around the world.

Fluctuation Between Extremes

Some areas are seeing the worst of both extremes. In the Midwest, the city of Chicago has experienced both prolonged droughts and massive flooding incidents. These extreme swings threaten both the availability of fresh drinking water and the city’s ability to manage stormwater and wastewater.

On the West Coast, California faces the dual threats of heavy storms and extended hot, dry periods. These extreme conditions actually exacerbate California’s problems, as extreme dry conditions increase the risk of massive wildfires, which make the region’s foothills more prone to deadly mudslides caused by heavy storms.

Concerns about the impacts of climate change on drinking water aren't new — scientists and research groups have been voicing their concerns for decades. What has changed is that we’re now seeing more direct impacts of droughts and storms on the increasing variability of water resources.

Decreasing snowpacks and less water runoff means a greater reliance on rain — a far less reliable source of drinking water. That uncertainty is likely to lead to increased spikes in demand for water for industrial, municipal, and agricultural purposes. A greater need for water has ramifications not just for our overall water usage, but our energy demands as well.

Energy Choices And Water Usage

Energy Production Uses Freshwater

Our choice of energy has a direct impact on water usage, which in turn puts added stress on our energy usage. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the global energy system used around 370 billion cubic meters (bcm) of freshwater in 2021 — nearly 10% of total global freshwater withdrawals.

Fossil fuel and nuclear power plants are not just our largest suppliers of electricity, they’re among our highest consumers of freshwater. A Scientific American study showed that 45.3% of water drawn from lakes, rivers, and underground aquifers in the U.S. is used for nuclear and fossil fuel power generation.

What’s worse, the IEA predicts that the energy industry’s use of freshwater will continue to rise and is projected to reach nearly 400 bcm by 2030. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs reports that 90% of global power generation is water intensive, and the projected rise in global power consumption will increase the energy sector’s water consumption by 85% by 2035.

Water Treatment Uses Energy

Our water infrastructure uses energy throughout its entire value chain. Groundwater extraction, purification, distillation, collection, and transportation all require energy, as does wastewater management and treatment. According to the EPA, drinking water and wastewater systems in the U.S. account for approximately 2% of annual energy use.

For municipal governments, water supply and wastewater treatment systems are among the most energy-intensive facilities, accounting for 30%–40% of total energy consumed. As much as 40% of the operating costs for drinking water systems can be just for its energy consumption. The more our water treatment relies on fossil fuel or nuclear power, the more strain it places on our freshwater reserves.

This cyclical relationship not only threatens the availability of freshwater, it also makes our energy security vulnerable to water depletion, putting more of our infrastructure at risk to extreme weather conditions.

How To Protect Our Water And Our Climate

Earth-friendly and renewable energy technologies such as solar, wind, and hydropower are capable of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and reducing our level of water consumption. At the same time, increasing our water efficiency will put less stress on our energy grids.

A McKinsey report showed that companies that switched to purchasing renewable energy reduced both their emissions and water usage. Across industries in water-stressed countries, a 50-percentage-point increase in purchases of renewables results in a nearly 60% reduction in water consumption. That’s because solar photovoltaic systems and wind turbines do not require water for their operation, and hydropower systems can adjust their energy generation to avoid the need for large reservoirs.

Because the production, treatment, and distribution of water to homes and businesses is so energy-intensive, increasing system efficiencies and adopting water conservation practices is doubly effective. Greater efficiency reduces the immediate amount of water used and the amount of water needed to operate the electrical systems.

Here are steps that utilities, businesses, and governments can take to conserve water and promote more sustainable energy usage:

  • Help Educate the Public — Utilities should align with government agencies to provide consumer education about efficient and sustainable water and energy conservation programs. Informational materials on efficient household water-saving tips, such as the best time of day for water-intensive activities, that highlight benefits can help earn public support and compliance.
  • Promote the Use of Efficient Products — Public outreach should also include the promotion of energy and water efficient products. Ensure that the public knows that the more they invest in WaterSense and ENERGY STAR certified products, the more money they'll save on water and energy.
  • Adopt Conservation Programs — Communities should partner with utilities to develop and promote community conservation programs that not only inform, but also provide incentives. This can include rebates for or assistance in installing equipment such as water meters, water-conserving appliances, and rainwater harvesting tanks.
  • Increase Energy and Water Storage Capacity — The increased frequency of droughts threaten both our water and energy resources. Water utilities should not only find alternative methods of water storage, but install on-site, redundant power supply systems to secure against energy shortages or power outages caused by natural disasters.
  • Support Water Efficiency at Local Power Plants — Water utilities could assist electrical utilities by providing reclaimed water for electricity generation. Electrical utilities should also look into more efficient cooling methods, such as closed-loop water circulation systems, or alternatives such as dry cooling technology for turbines.
  • Prioritize Earth-friendly Energy — Purchasing earth-friendly solar and wind power can ensure a utility is more energy-efficient and uses less water than buying fossil fuel-based power. Retail energy providers may offer a choice of energy plans that use renewable energy or off-set energy usage through renewable energy certificates (RECs).

Adopting water and energy efficiency practices will benefit utilities, consumers, businesses, and communities as a whole. By using earth-friendly or renewable energy sources, we can also reduce the amount of freshwater consumed, helping to relieve the stress on our water reserves. At the same time, by conserving water, we can reduce the amount of energy we need for these processes, which further preserves this most important resource.

Tyler Castle is an experienced energy professional, having worked for Santanna Energy Services since 2020. He is passionate about renewable energy and believes that diversifying the energy grid is the key to a sustainable future. Tyler is dedicated to supplying consumers with the best possible energy solutions and works diligently to make sure that Santanna can deliver the highest quality service.


  1. Williams, A. Park, et al. 2022. Rapid intensification of the emerging southwestern North American megadrought in 2020–2021. Nature Climate Change 12, 232–234.
  2. Carter, N. 2010. Energy’s Water Demand: Trends, Vulnerabilities, and Management. Congressional Research Service report
  3. Climate Impacts on Water Utilities. The United States Environmental Protection Agency.