Water shortages will put UK energy security ‘in danger’ say researchers

UK policymakers are being called on to give greater consideration to the electricity sector's 'water footprint', as water shortages are likely to impact energy generation in the future.

Researchers at Newcastle University have said that greater consideration of water usage in the sector will help minimise the risk of power stations having to reduce production or, in extreme scenarios, shut down altogether if water shortages mean they cannot remain operational.

The warnings coincide with a paper by Newcastle University, to be published in Global Environmental Change, which evaluates the demands for cooling water from the UK electricity sector.

Co-author of the paper Ed Byers from Newcastle University’s School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences said: “The UK Government is currently looking at policies to decarbonise the electricity sector, including considering a new generation of nuclear power stations, renewables such as hydro, wind and solar, and fossil-fuelled generation with carbon capture and storage (CCS)”.

Byers said that policymakers are primarily focusing on issues around security of supply, affordability and emissions reductions, while the wider impacts, such as the dependency on water for cooling, are largely overlooked as a barrier to development or a potential vulnerability to the future electricity system.

“The high dependency on water in electricity generation means there is a real possibility that in just a few decades some power stations may be forced to decrease production or shut down if there are water shortages, which may be expected with changes in climate and a growing population,” he said.

“Given the long-term nature of energy infrastructure projects, the decisions the Government is making now will set the UK on a track that will seal our future, for better or worse,” Byers added.

The paper also shows that the location of generation facilities in the Governments energy generation plans could have a significant impact on the UK’s water systems.

It suggests that clustered sites of CCS power stations, which are encouraged in the Government’s CCS Roadmap in order to reduce the costs of CO2 compression and transport infrastructure, could both contribute towards – and be vulnerable to – localised water shortages.

Byers added: “As inland water resources will need to be sustainably managed for other sectors such as agriculture and public water supply, there is a risk that coastal locations will become increasingly saturated with power generation facilities, which will have an impact on marine and estuarine environments.

“There needs to be better regional coordination of energy infrastructure development and water resources, to help ensure that sufficient water resources are available to all sectors, and that they are used in the most efficient ways possible,” he said.

Earlier this month, the World Bank launched an initiative to help countries mitigate the impact of water scarcity on energy security, arguing that water shortages are now slowing down global energy production.

The project, Thirsty Energy, will explore the energy-water nexus by identifying synergies and quantifying trade-offs between energy development plans and water use.

Leigh Stringer

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