IEA: Energy sector’s use of water to rise by 20%


Ahead of World Water Day, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has warned that the energy sector accounts for 15% of global water usage, predicting that it will “consume ever more by 2035”.

The IEA’s latest “World Energy Outlook” paints a worrying picture of the energy’s sector increasing use of water, which is expected to rise by one-fifth in the next 20 years.

The study finds that “some 580 billion cubic metres of fresh water are withdrawn for energy production every year.” These figures place the energy sector right behind agriculture in water consumption.

“The energy sector withdraws water at approximately the same rate that water flows down the Ganges (in India) or Mississippi (in the United States) Rivers – some of the very largest in the world,” the report stresses.

Extraction, transport and the processing of fossil fuels, as well as the irrigation of biofuels, all make the production of energy very dependent on water. And with growing water constraints in the future, reliability and costs will be all the more impacted, the study states.

The report finds that energy efficiency, and renewable resources, such as solar and wind, “contribute to a low-carbon energy future without intensifying water demands significantly,” while other low-carbon technologies such as nuclear power are more water-intensive.

“Non-thermal renewables, such as wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) may use very small amounts of water, such as for cleaning or panel washing. This makes them well-suited for a future that may be both more carbon- and water-constrained," the report states. "In addition to lower water use at the site of electricity generation, these renewable technologies have little or no water use associated with the production of fuel inputs and minimal impact on water quality compared to alternatives that discharge large volumes of heated cooling water or contaminants into the environment,” it adds.

Conventional natural gas and oil extraction are seen as relatively less water-intensive than coal production and shale gas. The latter not only requires additional water consumption for the hydraulic fracturing, it also carries “water contamination risks, specifically the leakage of fracturing fluids, hydrocarbons or saline water into groundwater supplies and the handling and disposal of waste water," the report reads.

“Water shortages in India and the United States, among other countries, have limited energy output in the past two years, while the heavy use of water in unconventional oil and gas production has generated considerable public concern,” the authors write.

China and Canada under the spotlight

The IEA also warns that China is “set to become more strained with the ongoing urbanisation and economic development”.

Widespread pollution of river systems and limited water supplies, especially in the north and the west of the country where agriculture and industry sectors are found, are putting “increasing pressure on groundwater resources,” the report states.

The Chinese government has put in place a reform plan ending next year, aimed at cutting water consumption, building desalination capacity, and developing major water infrastructure projects, scheduled to be completed in 2050. However, the authors note “the threat remains” for certain water-intensive industries.

The report also studied the situation in Canada, a “water-rich country” which is faced with the challenge of its oil sands production, for which the two available techniques both use great amounts of water.

“The impact of oil sands’ production on water quality is also a critical issue,” the report notes.

The study concludes by warning about the future water constraints, which will make the energy sector increasingly vulnerable ,and calls for the development of “better technology” and a better integration of energy and water policies.

The authors recommend “greater reliance on renewable energy technologies that have minimal water requirements such as solar and wind PV”, the development of “more advanced cooling systems”, asking the “energy sector to exploit non-freshwater sources and adopt water re-use technologies.”

In 2006 and 2007, the European Commission carried out an in-depth assessment of water scarcity and drought in the European Union.

According to a Commission-backed study (see part 1 and part 2), water efficiency in the EU could be improved by nearly 40% with technological improvements alone. Changes in human behaviour or production patterns could further increase savings, it noted.

Ideas put forward in a follow-up policy paper included improving land-use planning to take account of water issues, introducing more widespread use of pricing and metering technologies – in households and agriculture – as well as promoting water-efficient devices.

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