Want to Fight Drought? Build Wind Turbines

California's drought brings the question about renewable energy into sharp focus. Global Marine Photos [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

As California struggles with the specter of ongoing drought, much has been written about water conservation. From clever ways to conserve water at home to the urgent need to tackle pot's environmental footprint, there are so many places that we need to adjust our collective behavior and reduce our water footprint.

Fossil fuels suck (water)

One area of water use that sometimes gets overlooked is energy. It turns out that reducing our dependence on fossil fuels doesn't just reduce climate change (and therefore prevent future droughts), it also helps mitigate the massive amounts of water used in conventional power plants. Here's how the Union of Concerned Scientists describes the problem:

Coal plants, like most other steam-producing electricity-generating plants, typically withdraw and consume water from nearby water bodies, such as lakes, rivers, or oceans, to create steam for turning their turbines. A typical coal plant with a once-through cooling system withdraws between 70 and 180 billion gallons of water per year and consumes 0.36 to 1.1 billion gallons of that water.
Luckily, we have alternatives. Here's more from North American Wind Power:
In 2014, wind energy saved 2.5 billion gallons of water in California by displacing water consumption at the state's fossil-fired power plants, playing a valuable role in alleviating the state's record drought. Wind energy's annual water savings work out to around 65 gallons per person in the state — or the equivalent of 20 billion bottles of water, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). According to AWEA, one of wind energy's most overlooked benefits is that it requires virtually no water to produce electricity while almost all other electricity sources evaporate tremendous amounts of water.

Boosting grid stability

This benefit of wind energy takes on additional significance when we consider that hydroelectric generation — another relatively low-carbon source of electricity — can be severely impacted by drought, so wind power helps to both reduce fossil fuel-related water usage and guard against the vulnerability of hydropower to prolonged drought:

The drought has taken a toll on California's hydroelectric generation, but wind energy is helping to pick up the slack, according to AWEA. Last year, California's hydroelectric generation was down 7,366 GWh from its 2013 levels. California-based wind generation more than made up for that shortfall, providing 13,776 GWh in 2014.

Renewable energy critics tend to harp that wind power is unreliable and unpredictable. Here too, however, the reality is a little different. As the AWEA points out, wind power allows hydroelectric generators to conserve their water resources until they are needed, using them only at times of high demand, thus contributing to grid reliability too.
Energy conservation saves water too

So as more and more of us are urged to quit watering our lawns, and to "let it mellow if it's yellow," we would also be wise to consider our energy consumption. Every time we choose a renewable energy provider, every time we switch off the lights, and every time we make efforts to conserve energy and/or support renewables, we are not only cutting carbon emissions — we are conserving water too.

And in other news, floating solar power plants are also gaining traction as a way to generate energy while reducing water loss from evaporation.

We have the solutions. We just have to implement them.