Energy companies need to change the way they produce power, otherwise drinking water will become a scarce commodity for the world's population by 2040.
As soon as 2020, 30 to 40 percent of people around the world won't have access to drinking water unless the competing issues of creating energy and supplying clean water are addressed, according to research by a team from Aarhus University in Denmark and the U.S.'s Vermont Law School and CNA Corp.
One reason the vital needs are in conflict is that power plants must be cooled due to the immense heat that's generated.
Over three years, the team focused on four case studies in France, the U.S., China and India, dealing with specific utilities and energy suppliers and identifying current energy needs before making their projections.
As a result, they predicted it will be impossible to continue to produce electricity as we do today while meeting the demand for drinking water in 2040.
"It's a huge problem that the electricity sector does not even realize how much water they actually consume," said Professor Benjamin Sovacool from Aarhus University. "And together with the fact that we do not have unlimited water resources, it could lead to a serious crisis if nobody acts on it soon."
The researchers made six general recommendations for decision-makers to alter the present system.
They said there needs to be an improvement in energy efficiency, an investment in solar energy, a strong focus on wind energy, improved research into alternative cooling cycles, a better overview as to how much water is used by power plants, and to stop the use of fossil fuel facilities in parts of the world with scarce water.
Thermal power plants in the U.S. used as much water as farms did in 2005, and more than four times as much as all U.S. residents, according to news site Treehugger.
In 2008, power plants in the U.S. withdrew 60 to 170 billion gallons of freshwater every day from rivers, lakes, streams and aquifers, while using 2.8 to 5.9 billion gallons.
The only energy systems that do not require cooling cycles are wind, hydropower and some solar power systems - as solar photovoltaics, for example, do require water for cleaning the panels.
But the world's largest solar thermal plant, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California's Mojave Desert, uses dry-cooling technology that dramatically reduces water usage.