Here's something most people don't think about -- creating electricity requires water, a lot of it
. Every time we flip on a light switch or open up a laptop, we're assuming indirect responsibility for the water used to generate the steam to turn the generators to create the electricity that lights our nights and powers our lives.
The majority of the world's electricity is made with steam-driven turbines. Coal, nuclear, gas, oil, and some kinds of solar thermal designs all require massive amounts of water to operate. Researchers at Virginia Tech estimate that fossil fuel plants use between eight to 16 gallons of water to power one 60-watt light bulb for 12 hours per day. Over the course of a year, that little bulb will run through around 5,000 gallons of water.
When you factor in the water used to extract the energy sources that we use, you end up with a huge water footprint attached to the electricity that powers our lives. It's something we don't think about that has an enormous impact on our lives -- nearly half of the water used by the state of California is used to generate electricity.
We're a terrifically wasteful society. We waste oil making plastic designed to be thrown out after one use. We waste electricity with inefficiently designed gadgets and gizmos. We waste energy driving around in big cars and trucks driven by engines that could be doing a LOT better in going farther, faster, on less fuel. We waste water when we let the faucet run and when we leave the porch lights on all night.
The question is complex, so it's no surprise that the answer is as well. We could all be doing much better to use energy more efficiently in our day-to-day lives, but we also need to push hard to change the underlying systems that support those lives. The electricity coursing through the energy grid should be generated by wind and solar voltaic, two sources that don't require water. We could cut nearly a third of our energy use by simply using it better -- design standards could be tightened up to force big business to craft products that sip power and build homes that use more natural, local sources of light, heating and cooling.
Truly sustainable energy needs to be the future of our civilization or one day we're going to wake up and find all the deposits we've been making on the bank of the planet are going to come up overdrawn. Then we won't have clean water to drink, good food to eat, we'll get kicked out of our apartments, and our Netflix accounts will get cancelled. The horrors.