Monday, 11 July 2011

Is Energy Pressure on Water Supply Rising?

Water risk: Energy Pressure on Water Supply is Rising

World leaders are pondering the nation's energy fate without adequately considering the effect that such policies will have on limited water supplies. Energy production is water-intensive.

On World Water Day, a new report draws attention to the link between energy use and water depletion. Traditional and alternative energy technologies are consuming a rising amount of water per unit of energy, putting new demands on increasingly scarce water supplies, according to the policy paper from the World Policy Institute and EBG Capital. The trend has wide-ranging implications for policy, business, security, environment, justice, development, and sustainability.

Now - as new energy policies are emerging - is the window of opportunity to add water to the agenda as nations evaluate their energy options and develop policies to encourage sustainable energy production. Water needs to be part of this debate, the report contends, noting in particular the need to manage the trade-offs between water and energy at the local, national, and cross-border levels. In the United States, generating energy consumes 20% of the water not used by agriculture.

"The competition between water and energy needs represents a critical business, security, and environmental issue, but it has not yet received the attention that it deserves," said Diana Glassman, one of the report's authors. "Energy production consumes significant amounts of water, and vice versa. In a world where water scarcity is a major and growing challenge, water deserves a place on the energy agenda alongside cost, carbon and security considerations."

"THE WATER-ENERGY NEXUS: Adding Water to the Energy Agenda," by Diana Glassman, Michele Wucker, Tanushree Isaacman, and Corinne Champilou, New York: World Policy Institute and EBG Capital, March 2011, provides the context needed to evaluate key water-energy tradeoffs. The paper focuses on consumption -that is, water that is permanently removed from its source- while noting that water quality and withdrawal (water removed then returned to its source) are also important issues. It includes a comprehensive, user-friendly summary of the most credible available data about water consumption per unit of energy produced across a spectrum of traditional and alternative energy technologies. The paper provides a tool for experts and non-experts alike to frame issues, ask the right questions about our energy portfolio, and begin identifying appropriate solutions to our emerging water-energy crisis.

Among the report's findings:

  • Both emerging petroleum and alternative transportation fuels consume more water than conventional petroleum-based fuels.
  • Petroleum from the Canadian oil sands extracted via surface mining techniques can consume 20 times more water than conventional oil drilling.
  • Irrigated first-generation soy- and corn-based biofuels can consume thousands of times more water than traditional oil drilling, primarily through irrigation.

The picture on electricity generation is mixed.

  • Among conventional power plants, gas-fired plants consume the least amount of water per unit of energy produced. Coal- and oil-fired plants consume roughly twice as much water as gas-fired plants. Nuclear consumes approximately three times as much.
  • One of the "cleaner" coal technologies, the integrated gasification combined cycle process, reduces a coal plant's water consumption by half, while also reducing carbon emissions and other pollutants. Emerging carbon capture technologies could increase a coal plant's water consumption by 30%-100%.
  • Wind and solar photovoltaic electricity consume minimal water and are the most water-efficient forms of conventional or alternative electricity production.
  • The solar thermal form of electricity generation consumes twice as much water as coal and five times as much as gas-fired power plants.
  • Natural gas produced by hydraulic fracturing is a game-changer that could alter the entire energy mix of transportation fuels and electricity generation. Current data indicate that natural gas produced this way consumes seven times more water than conventional gas extraction but roughly the same amount of water as conventional oil drilling.

The paper also identifies specific areas where information gaps hinder effective decision-making but, conversely, could pull together new alliances to break the logjam around energy policy. These include evaluating the water impact of the full range of emerging technologies; updating and filling information holes regarding hydraulic fracturing and Canadian oil sands among others; and incorporating data about water consumption by various industries.

The paper marks the launch of a World Policy Institute program focusing on the Water-Energy Nexus, including follow-up research and analysis, events, and public education efforts.

The World Policy Institute emphasizes to political leaders that they must consider the nexus between energy policy and water consumption. The technologies to reduce carbon emissions are coming to the fore. But some of those ideas require high levels of water, a scarce resource that is required by all energy forms.

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