Retirement of US fossil fuel-fired power plants will increase water availability
Nearly two-thirds of fossil fuel-fired electricity generation capacity in the United States is expected to reach its typical end of life by 2035. While the closure of fossil fuel-fired power plants will help advance decarbonization goals, the cessation of water use for fossil fuel-fired power plant cooling - the largest water user in the US - will also impact the nation’s water resources. We assess when, where, and how much water will be made available upon the expected retirement of the nation’s nearly one thousand fossil fuel-fired power plants by combining a lifespan-based model of fossil fuel-fired generator retirements for the US fossil fuel-fired electricity generation fleet with a national-scale hydrologic model. We show that annual water withdrawals and consumption of fossil fuel-fired power generators will be significantly curtailed (85 % and 68 % reduction, respectively) by 2035 if these generators follow their typical retirement timeline. Most rivers with fossil fuel-fired power plants diverting and/or discharging water will have a net increase in annual streamflow after plant retirement (maximum decrease of 2 %, maximum increase of 57 % by 2050), with the most pronounced increases occurring in the summer months. The retirement of fossil fuel-fired power plants will lead to a large relative change (>5%) in streamflow at least one month per year by 2050 in 31 subbasins. The retirement of power generators was shown to produce noticeable streamflow impacts up to hundreds of kilometers downstream. By the retirement of the last US fossil fuel-fired power generator, 2.6 billion m3 of water that was once consumed by these power plants could be made available for other uses. In addition to the global benefits of reduced greenhouse gas emissions, the notable increases in streamflow and water availability in many US rivers due to the retirement of fossil fuel-fired power plants could benefit local water users and ecosystems.