Water: The Old but New Piece of the Energy Puzzle

Author

Baker Institute, Contributor

October 28, 2014

Water and energy are inextricably linked. Water is required for the extraction, refinement, and production of energy resources and is essential for electric power generation—either as “fuel” in a hydropower system or for cooling purposes.[1] Energy is necessary for the extraction, treatment, and transportation of water. Today, 15% of water withdrawals globally are for energy production. Population growth and increased income levels in many countries are increasing the demand for both water and energy. The United Nations has predicted that energy consumption will increase by 35% by 2035, increasing water withdrawals by 20% and water consumption by 85%. A study by the OECD estimates that global fresh water demand will increase by 55% between 2000 and 2050. Predictions in other studies vary as to the magnitude of the increases in energy consumption and water demand, but they all point in the same direction: both are going up, up, up. Water constraints are already affecting the energy industry in various locations, including in the U.S. and Europe, where low water flows have forced temporary power plant closures or reductions in capacity.

The challenge presented to a sustainable, integrated water-energy future by the growth of populations and economies is very real. In addition, the mounting concerns of climate change may create additional stress on water availability and ecosystems. The issues at hand are both technological and political. We’ve always had the same amount of water on the planet. What has changed is the number of stakeholders clamoring for a piece of the pie and the extent of the impact of pollution on water quality. Technological solutions such as desalinization or better water treatment can make important inroads on these issues, but these options tend to make the acquisition of useable water more expensive and more energy intensive. Technology and science can take us a long way in addressing these issues, but developing good policy requires consideration of the politics (local, national and even global) and governance questions in play. Though interdependent, water and energy are managed via different institutional frameworks, policymaking processes, and governance structures, which can complicate communication and cooperation between the sectors. Energy has long enjoyed a high degree of awareness by the public; prices are watched carefully—made easily available via newspapers, television, and prominent websites—and advances have been made in energy efficiency. In contrast, water has not benefited from the same kind of attention and lacks any real incentives—commercial or political—for conservation and efficient use. Cynthia Barnett, a journalist and water expert, recently explained in Ensia how poorly designed water policies and pricing structures in the U.S. result in excessively wasteful use of water and disincentives for water utilities to invest in infrastructure.

Recognition of the interconnectedness of water and energy has been rising for several years now. The theme of this year’s World Water Week in Stockholm (SWWW, Aug. 31-Sept. 5) was water and energy. The conference, which bills itself as the “leading annual global event for concretely addressing the planet’s water issues,” was attended by more than 3,000 participants from over 140 countries. The variety of topics discussed was illustrative of the breadth and reach of water and energy into all aspects of human life. Many of the presentations given at SWWW are available online. Water and energy was an appropriate theme to lead in to next year’s SWWW focus: water and development. Toward the end of next year, the United Nations General Assembly will adopt a new list of sustainable development goals intended to guide nations in a post-2015 world and a new agreement on climate. Access to reliable and affordable water and energy is essential to human development and continued economic growth, and providing that access in a way that limits greenhouse gas emissions is crucial if we are to prevent global temperatures from rising too far.

Not surprisingly, one of the hottest topics at SWWW was hydraulic fracturing (fracking), or more specifically, questions regarding water supplies for fracking and potential pollution threats to groundwater quality caused by fracking activity. Water and shale energy development was the subject of a seminar convened by the Water Resources Institute, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, General Electric, Ceres, and Stockholm International Water Institute. Shale development was also discussed at length in a full-day workshop entitled Entwined Predicaments: Limits Facing Water and Energy and was frequently mentioned in presentations in seminars on a variety of other topics. Other important topics at the conference were hydropower and its effect on ecosystems; the relationships between water, energy, food, and ecosystems; participatory processes and governance; implications for foreign policies; and climate change.

Due to its influence with governments, the energy industry has a powerful microphone for bringing attention to and gaining cooperation on many of these issues. And, industry leaders—motivated by the risk inadequate water supplies present to energy production and the risk of negative public perception of potential impacts to water quality may hold for continued operations—are rapidly coming to understand the issues and the urgent need to address them. In the coming months, experts at the Baker Institute will be exploring questions regarding water and energy in preparation for a major conference on the topic in Spring 2015. Questions that will be explored include those regarding ecosystem stress associated with expanded hydraulic fracturing activity, particularly in a time of drought; alternatives to water for fracturing operations; whether hydraulic fracturing activity does (or should) meet the requirement for oil and gas exemptions from certain state water laws; ownership of groundwater and the ability of the state or groundwater conservation districts to limit pumping; and technological solutions to various concerns by different constituents. We give tremendous attention to energy in the policy domain; elevating the importance of water in the policy context is a crucial next step, which is precisely what we will be doing in the coming months.

This blog post was authored by Regina M. Buono, the Baker Botts Fellow in Energy and Environmental Regulatory Affairs, Center for Energy Studies at Rice University’s Baker Institute.


[1] The only energy technologies that do not require water are solar and wind, but these sources are may be intermittent, depending on weather conditions, and currently produce a only a tiny portion of the energy needed to meet global demand.

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