Reducing Energy’s Water Footprint: Driving a Sustainable Energy Future

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Water is an essential natural resource that impacts all aspects of life:  Clean and abundant supplies of water are vital for supporting the production of food, public health, industrial and energy development, and a healthy environment. Water is an integral part of energy extraction, production, and generation. It is used directly in hydro-electric power generation and is used extensively for thermoelectric power plant cooling and emissions control. Water is also used for energy resource extraction such as gas shale fracking and development, biofuels production, coal and uranium mining and processing, as well as for oil and natural gas refining and energy resource transportation.

Historically, energy infrastructures around the world were commonly developed within a context of unconstrained water resource availability. Increasingly, however, unsustainable uses of water resources, population dynamics and migration patterns, and climate change impacts on precipitation and the environment are all altering the baseline supplies of water across the globe. These factors are affecting new energy generation needs, the timing and spatial patterns of energy demand, and the risk factors for energy security, reliability, and price stability.

Therefore, as nations try to balance the demands and availability of water resources to support growing agricultural, human health, energy, industrial, and ecological demands in the coming decades, it is clear that the water footprint, even more so than the carbon footprint, could become the critical factor in defining a secure, resilient, and sustainable energy future for countries around the world.

A Collision Course between Water Supplies and Energy Development

The growing concerns about the conflicts between water resource availability and the ability to support sustainable energy growth were first highlighted in a U.S. Department of Energy Report to Congress prepared in 2007 by Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories in cooperation with the National Energy Technology Laboratory and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI).1 That report noted a number of trends in water resource availability and growing water demands that could significantly challenge energy growth, reliability, and sustainability.

Since then, concerns over growing water constraints and their impact on future energy development have been recognized by energy, water, and financial and economic development leaders worldwide. The trends observed include the stress in water resource availability in many regions of the globe and how that is being exacerbated by climate change, the growing water needs to support industrial growth and public health that will increase competition for water resources, and the growing trend in implementing higher water-intensive energy technologies. These three trends suggest a collision course between sustainable water resources management and sustainable economic growth, public health, and secure energy supplies in the coming decades. The following sections highlight both the growing water and energy interdependency concerns and the research, development, and technology innovations needed to reduce energy water needs and drive toward a more sustainable water and energy future.

Emerging Energy and Water Issues and Challenges

One of the major challenges facing new energy production and generation globally is the current high level of water stress relative to water supply availability around the world (see Figure 1). The projected growth in global energy development and the estimated increase in water consumption will occur in regions where freshwater availability is already under high stress due to a combination of demands from major water-using sectors and unsustainable surface water and ground-water withdrawal practices.

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Comments

Leonardo Zanata
Wow... I read the full article, very interesting! Thanks!
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