Energy from fossil fuels will lead to water crisis by 2040

Two new reports on the global energy-water nexus have concluded that by 2040 there may not be enough water to meet both the world's drinking water and energy generation demands.

With large amounts of water required to generate energy from fossil fuels and nuclear, competing water and energy demands risk a combined water and energy crisis in the coming decades.

Released yesterday (July 29), the reports estimate a 50% rise in water demands by 2030 driven increasingly by electricity generation which has the potential to leave a 40% gap between supply and demand in some parts of the world.

The report stated that water-scarcity and the possibility of droughts due to global warming could lead to energy shortages and blackouts in areas reliant on fossil fuels.

Water consumption is particularly high in the energy industry with coal, gas and nuclear power plants all needing cooling cycles in order to function. Coal and nuclear generation are particularly water intensive, with 168 cubic meters of water withdrawn per MWh for nuclear power and 86 cubic meters per MWh for coal power plants.

The use of ‘once through’ or ‘open loop’ systems means that most thermoelectric power plants don’t recycle the water they use, instead returning it to the water source.

The data was collected by researchers from Vermont Law School and Aarhus University in Denmark. Director of the Centre for Energy Technologies at Aarhus University Professor Benjamin K. Sovacool said: “”It’s a huge problem that the electricity sector do not even realise how much water they actually consume. 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 areas highlighted for particular water-stress were in Texas, India and Northern China. In India, 70% of power generation comes from low-quality coal and the World Resources Institute estimates that its water demand will outstrip supply by as much as 50% by 2030, with 79% of new electricity generation capacity expected to be built in water-scare or water-stressed areas.

In the USA, 41% of all freshwater withdrawals were for thermoelectric cooling, more than in any other sector including agriculture, even as the country experiences one of the worst droughts in its history.

Insurmountable water shortage

The reports called for the rapid deployment of renewable capacity, such as wind energy and solar PV, which have negligible water consumption. It also called for energy companies to better regulate how much water they use, with many thermo energy plants not even registering their water consumption.

The growing risk of water scarcity in the energy-water nexus is going to lead to tough decisions on power generation according to Sovacool: “Do we want to spend it on keeping power plants going or as drinking water? We don’t have enough water to do both.”

“If we keep doing business as usual, we are facing an insurmountable water shortage – even if water was free, because it’s not a matter of the price. There will no water by 2040 if we keep doing what we’re doing today. There’s no time to waste. We need to act now.”

The reports follow repeated warnings from experts and business leaders about the devastating effect water shortages could have on the world. Last year, the Potsdam Institute estimated that 500m people will be at risk of water scarcity under a 1.5-2°C temperature rise and in February this year the World Bank launched an initiative to identify solutions to water shortages in the energy-water nexus.

The first report by Aarhus University, Vermont Law School and the CNA Corporation can be found on Edie. As well as the warnings about water consumption, it outlines a number of scenarios comparing growing energy capacity to water availability. In particular, it stresses that increased coal consumption will not be viable for water-stressed regions.

REPORT: Capturing synergies between water conservation and carbon dioxide emissions in the power sector

Matt Field

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