Technical analysis of a river basin-based model of advanced power plant cooling technologies for mitigating water management challenges

Ashlynn S. Stillwell, Mary E. Clayton, Michael E. Webber

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Thermoelectric power plants require large volumes of water for cooling, which can introduce drought vulnerability and compete with other water needs. Alternative cooling technologies, such as cooling towers and hybrid wet-dry or dry cooling, present opportunities to reduce water diversions. This case study uses a custom, geographically resolved river basin-based model for eleven river basins in the state of Texas (the Brazos and San Jacinto-Brazos, Colorado and Colorado-Brazos, Cypress, Neches, Nueces, Red, Sabine, San Jacinto, and Trinity River basins), focusing on the Brazos River basin, to analyze water availability during drought. We utilized two existing water availability models for our analysis: (1)the full execution of water rights - a scenario where each water rights holder diverts the full permitted volume with zero return flow, and (2) current conditions - a scenario reflecting actual diversions with associated return flows. Our model results show that switching the cooling technologies at power plants in the eleven analyzed river basins to less water-intensive alternative designs can potentially reduce annual water diversions by 247-703 millionm3 - enough water for 1.3-3.6million people annually. We consider these results in a geographic context using geographic information system tools and then analyze volume reliability, which is a policymaker's metric that indicates the percentage of total demand actually supplied over a given period. This geographic and volume reliability analysis serves as a measure of drought susceptibility in response to changes in thermoelectric cooling technologies. While these water diversion savings do not alleviate all reliability concerns, the additional streamflow from the use of dry cooling alleviates drought concerns for some municipal water rights holders and might also be sufficient to uphold instream flow requirements for important bays and estuaries on the Texas Gulf coast.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number034015
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • cooling towers
  • cooling water
  • drought
  • dry cooling
  • policy
  • power plants
  • water rights

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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