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Treatment of brackish water for fossil power plant cooling


In this study, we evaluated the technical, economic and environmental impacts of retrofitting brackish groundwater treatment systems at existing coal- and gas-fired electric generating units (EGUs) to reduce freshwater consumption in wet cooling towers. Based on fleet averages, retrofitting brackish water treatment systems decreases unit freshwater consumption by 94–100%, while increasing the cost of electricity generation by 8–10%. The unit capacity shortfalls are less than 1.1%. The resulting cost of freshwater consumption savings by brackish water treatment is US$1.7 m3 and US$2.9 m3 on average for coal- and gas-fired EGUs, respectively. However, these trade-offs are highly affected by the brine disposal method. The use of thermal zero liquid discharge for brine disposal can roughly double the average cost of freshwater consumption savings. The cost-effectiveness of brackish water treatment compared with dry cooling deployment depends on how concentrated brines are managed. The identified trade-offs and their dependence fill knowledge gaps to better inform water management.

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Fig. 1: Brackish water resources and treatment energy consumption and cost, not including deep-well pumping energy and cost.
Fig. 2: Performance and cost effects by EGU of brackish water treatment deployment, including deep-well pumping energy and cost.
Fig. 3: Effect of capacity factor on cost of freshwater consumption savings.
Fig. 4: Comparison of unit-level impacts of brackish water treatment deployment with and without ZLD.
Fig. 5: Comparison of the cost of freshwater consumption savings for brackish water treatment and dry cooling.

Data availability

The data used in this paper are available in a public data repository: Two simulation tools were used in this study: IECM is publicly available at and WAVE is publicly available at:


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This research was funded by the US Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management through the National Energy Technology Laboratory under the Water Management for Power System Field Work Proposal DE-FECM1611080. The authors acknowledge M. C. Woods for assistance with the project, and A. A. Atia and N. J. Kuehn for their comments and suggestions during the internal quality assurance and quality control processes. The authors also thank M. Blackhurst and his group for the valuable discussion on water opportunity costs. This project was funded by the United States Department of Energy, National Energy Technology Laboratory, in part, through a site support contract. Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, nor the support contractor, nor any of their employees, makes any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness or usefulness of any information, apparatus, product or process disclosed, or represents that its use would not infringe privately owned rights. Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply its endorsement, recommendation or favouring by the United States Government or any agency thereof. The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the United States Government or any agency thereof.

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Authors and Affiliations



H.Z. and E.J.G. designed the research; Z.W. conducted the experiments; Z.W. and H.Z. performed the data analysis; E.J.G., C.M.A. and N.S.S. contributed to the data analysis; Z.W. and H.Z. wrote the draft manuscript, and all the authors reviewed and edited the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Haibo Zhai.

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Nature Water thanks Sophia Plata and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Sections 1–9, Figs. 1–13, Tables 1–15 and Equations 1–8.

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Wu, Z., Zhai, H., Grol, E.J. et al. Treatment of brackish water for fossil power plant cooling. Nat Water 1, 471–483 (2023).

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