Water, water, everywhere?

‘Nor any drop to drink’ as the Rime of the Ancient Mariner goes and that’s the lede to this post on water scarcity and energy. Perhaps a strange subject if you are currently in the UK and the in South West in particular, but actually one that does bear thinking about.

We take for granted that water is essential to life. We require clean drinking water free of contaminants and the production of our food is dependent on a sustainable supply of water. But water is also an essential part of the processes that produce our energy and many of the goods that we take for granted.

Swinford Water Treatment Plant(source J.Reed)

Water security, or water scarcity, is a growing concern. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [pdf] state that ‘water and its availability and quality will be the main pressures on, and issues for, societies and the environment under climate change.’ Climate change is expected to alter the quantity and quality of available water which will have impacts on the availability of food, access, stability and utilisation. It will not be enough to expect that historic hydrological behaviour will continue into the future as climate change will affect patterns of precipitation and cause changes in the large-scale hydrological cycle.

The Environment Agency in their report The Case for Change – Current and Future Water Availability that ‘Climate change, population growth, and changes in lifestyle are likely to impact significantly on water availability in the future,’ that water resources in the UK are under pressure now, and that water availability is likely to decrease in the future. They also state that management of demand will have a part to play but will be unlikely to relieve all of the pressure on water resources in the UK by 2050.

Combined with a growing global population those pressures will only increase. Globally 70% of freshwater water extracted is used for agriculture [pdf]. The global population is predicted to rise by 2 – 3 billion over the next 40 years resulting in an increase in food demand of about 70% and an inevitable increase in demand for water as a result.

With an increasing population, there will also be an increasing demand for energy, particularly electricity. According to the World Bank there are currently 2.5 billion people with unreliable or no access to electricity and 2.8 billion people who live in areas of high water stress. Currently, according to the International Energy Agency, 15% of extracted freshwater is used for the production of energy, either in the processing of fuels such as biofuels or as coolant for fossil fueled thermal power plants. Global energy consumption expected to rise by 35% through 2035 with water use rising by 20%. Water consumed and not returned to the environment by the energy industry will rise by 85% over the same timescale.  The World Bank reports that in the last 5 years 50% of the worlds energy and utilities companies have experienced water related business impacts.

Diego Rodriguez a senior economist at the World Bank and Program Manager of their Water Partnership Program has stated 4 ways in which water shortages harm energy production:

  1. South Africa: Lack of sufficient water resources in South Africa have forced all new power plants to shift to dry cooling systems, which cost more to build and are less efficient than water-cooled systems.
  2. North America: In the United States, a number of power plants were forced to shut down or reduce power generation due to low water flows or high water temperatures, resulting in significant financial losses. In 2012, California’s hydroelectric power generation was 38% lower than the prior summer due to reduced snowpack and low precipitation.
  3. India: Last year [2013] in India a thermal power plant was forced to shut down because of severe water shortages.
  4. Australia: During one of the worst droughts in 1,000 years, three coal power plants had to reduce electricity production to protect municipal water supplies in 2007.

Point 3 refers to the 1130 MW Parli thermal power plant in Maharashtra which had to be shut down in Feb 2013 when water levels behind the Khadka dam which supplies cooling water to the plant reached dangerously low levels. This is an instance where water resources requirements for  industry, power generation and drinking water and irrigation  were placed into stark opposition by an ongoing drought in the region and highlights the problems that can occur now with competing demands on an increasingly scarce resource and raises the question of where the priorities should be for water utilisation.

In the UK a new focus on shale gas extraction will increase further the water demand for energy production, and create requirements for increased wastewater treatment capacity and infrastructure as well as produce the risk of groundwater contamination.

We will take a look at possible solutions to these problems in future posts.

JReed James Reed

Senior Lecturer in Renewable Energy
Sustainable Environment Research Centre
University of South Wales

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