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How Many Gallons to Power That Microwave?

"Water and electricity don't mix!" As wise as that admonition is from a safety perspective, here's the twist: Not only do they mix, but here in California we wouldn't have one without the other. Here's why.

Power Needs Water

Without water, you would not have electricity in your house.
Californians get their electricity from natural gas, nuclear, hydropower, coal and renewable sources like solar. 

And they all use water.

This plant burns natural gas, which creates about half the power generated in California.

It uses the heat to boil water, just like a tea kettle.

The steam turns a turbine, which is attached to a generator. 

Many plants re-use the water, but some of it, up to 75 percent in some cases, evaporates in the process. 

Newer power plants use as much as 95 percent less water, but they are more expensive to build. 

Coal and nuclear plants work the same way. All plants get water from wells, rivers or the ocean, and some use recycled water. 

Some kinds of solar plants use steam turbines, too. Solar thermal plants boil water with heat from the sun. 

These types of power plants consume about 63 billion gallons of water a year in California, enough to fill the Rose Bowl 750 times.

Our demand for energy is growing. Meanwhile climate change threatens the water supply. That will affect both our water and our power.

And that's not all ...

Illustration by Andy Warner

Written by Molly Samuel and Lauren Sommer. Research by Don Clyde and Lisa Pickoff-White.


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Water and Power was produced by Climate Watch, KQED's initiative covering climate science and policy issues, with a specific focus on California.