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Global scenarios for significant water use reduction in thermal power plants based on cooling water demand estimation using satellite imagery


Connecting research on the water demand of power plants with mitigation strategies for energy-based water use is an important step to ensure global water and energy security, and thus provide more sustainable use of both. Here, we assess the water footprint of 13,863 thermal power plants units with a total active capacity of 4,182 GW worldwide and give an estimate of the current water demand for power production at four different levels—global, regional, country and river. Furthermore, we provide a projection for the energy transition period towards a net zero greenhouse gas emissions economy by 2050. In particular, we show that by following a ‘Best Policies Scenario’ the water consumption of global power plants can be decreased by about 98%, and water withdrawal by 95% by 2050. Therefore, the suggested pathway provides one potential solution to the problem of water depletion that results from the water-energy nexus.

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Fig. 1: Water withdrawal and water consumption by thermal power plants at the regional resolution.
Fig. 2: Transition scenario for the Danube river based on the BPS.
Fig. 3: Analytical comparison between LTS and BPS.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from GlobalData26, but restrictions apply to the availability, which was used under license for this study. The database encompasses over 170 fields of information, which include the names of power generators, owners, operators, generator manufacturers and so on. An extract of the extensive list of thermal power plants that exceed 50 MW, which contains fuel type, country, active capacity, generation type, location and type of cooling technology, is available as Supplementary Data 1. The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

Code availability

Example Matlab scripts used in the production of this analysis are available at


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The authors thank M. Flörke for helpful discussions concerning earlier versions of the manuscript.

Author information




A.L. designed the study and performed the analysis, collected data on cooling technology and water use and drafted the manuscript. J.F. collected the data on existing power plants globally, and assisted with the methodology development and the results analysis. U.C. assisted with the methodology development and literature review. C.L. assisted with the sensitivity analysis and gave support for the paper writing. C.B. assisted with the analysis and initiated, supervised, reviewed and coordinated the work.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Alena Lohrmann or Christian Breyer.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

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Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–10, Tables 1–12, Supplementary Notes 1–6 and refs. 1–11.

Supplementary Data 1

Power plant database, estimated water demand of individual power plants, projected water demand in 2020–2050 for the Lifetime and Best Policies Scenarios.

Supplementary Data 2

Comparison of identification of cooling technology and water type with the information reported in the US EIA database.

Supplementary Data 3

Water footprint of thermal power plants on regional, country and river levels; results of the sensitivity analysis; results of the comparison of the estimated water demand with the values presented in the GWSP Digital Water Atlas.

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Lohrmann, A., Farfan, J., Caldera, U. et al. Global scenarios for significant water use reduction in thermal power plants based on cooling water demand estimation using satellite imagery. Nat Energy 4, 1040–1048 (2019).

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