As Americans we use a lot of water—per capita, more than any other country on the planet. A huge portion (49% as of 2005) of what we use goes to thermoelectric cooling, or removing heat from our fossil fuel burning power plants. That’s around 200 billion gallons a day, but we have a lot of power plants out there. How much does one of these plants actually use? The biggest culprits are the oldest plants that are the least efficient, built before the days of harnessing cogeneration. Taking the coal-fired power plant in Salem, Massachusetts (set to be decommissioned next year), the word is that the plant currently uses up to 359 million gallons a day when it is running at full capacity. How much is that?
For reference, let’s take the Empire State Building. With 102 floors, topping out at 1,454 feet, the tower encompasses an impressive 37 million cubic feet of volume. In comparison, 359 million gallons divided by 7.48 gallons per cubic foot equals 47.99 million cubic feet. That means that water used to cool the Salem plant at full capacity could fill the Empire State Building 1.3 times a day! This is one of the more seldom-referenced reasons why our old fossil fuel plants need to be retired in deference to cleaner energy production.