Evaporating water could provide enough energy to replace nearly all of the world’s nuclear power plants, research published Tuesday reveals. Around half the solar energy absorbed by the Earth is used for natural evaporation processes, and covering existing reservoirs with generation engines could harness this power and drive it into the grid.

The researchers discovered that, with such a system, up to 325 gigawatts of power could be generated in the United States alone. This accounts for around 69 percent of the country’s electricity generation rate in 2015. On a wider scale, the International Atomic Energy Agency placed total global nuclear energy capacity at 383 gigawatts in 2015, meaning water has the potential to revolutionize energy production.

The paper, “Potential for natural evaporation as a reliable renewable energy resource,” was published in the science journal Nature Communications. Ozgur Sahin, associate professor of biological sciences and physics at Columbia University, worked with three other researchers on the study.

“We find that natural evaporation from open water surfaces could provide power densities comparable to current wind and solar technologies while cutting evaporative water losses by nearly half,” the paper reads. “We estimate up to 325 GW of power is potentially available in the United States. Strikingly, water’s large heat capacity is sufficient to control power output by storing excess energy when demand is low, thus reducing intermittency and improving reliability. Our findings motivate the improvement of materials and devices that convert energy from evaporation.”

The system also has the potential to save water captured by the generators. Take a look at the map below.

Map provided by the team.
Map provided by the team.

The southwest region, shown on the map as potentially saving the most water through the generation system, suffers from a notably high level of water scarcity.

Using a database of open water bodies, the team was able to predict how covering lakes and reservoirs larger than 0.1 square kilometers, excluding the Great Lakes, would generate electricity. Beyond the 325 gigawatts generated, the system would also recover 96.4 billion cubic meters of water through reduced evaporation. Overall, the system would exceed power demands in 15 out of 47 studied states.

It sounds like a bold plan, but others have also suggested major solutions to switching the United States onto renewables. In July, Tesla CEO Elon Musk suggested a solar farm stretching 100 miles by 100 miles, which would be enough to power the country on solar. Like Musk’s plan, the water evaporation idea may sound ambitious, but it highlights the abundance of natural resources available to come to a solution.


If you liked this article, check out this video about an island that is now completely solar powered.