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Thirsty energy

Nuclear and fossil-fuelled power plants are critically reliant on water for cooling and other processes.

Water is a critical element of energy security, so we need to monitor it carefully

3 December 2012

This commentary appears in the latest issue of IEA Energy: The Journal of the International Energy Agency.

By Fatih Birol

Energy and water underpin human prosperity and are, to a large extent, interdependent. Water is ubiquitous in energy production; in power generation; in the extraction, transport and processing of fossil fuels; and, increasingly, in irrigation for crops used to produce biofuels. Similarly, energy is vital to the provision of water, needed to power the systems that collect, transport, distribute and treat it.

Energy systems are vulnerable to constraints on water resources that affect the reliability and cost of energy projects. In August, water shortages in India from a delayed monsoon concurrently raised electricity demand (largely for groundwater pumping) and lowered electricity supply from hydropower, contributing to a power outage that lasted several days and affected more than 600 million people. In the United States and Europe, droughts and heat waves have affected operations at nuclear and fossil-fuelled power plants – which rely on water for cooling and other processes – forcing reductions in electricity output and, in some cases, imposing additional costs for importing electricity and/or investing in adaptive measures. In Iraq, sustained increases in oil production hinge on the availability of water for injection to maintain pressure in the country’s southern fields, with vital implications for Iraq’s future prosperity and global oil markets. Water availability in parts of China, which is estimated to have the world’s largest shale gas resources, will strongly influence the pace of development.

Water-related energy security and economic risks are heightened in regions where water availability is limited, but energy production can face detrimental impacts from water shortages even in regions with seemingly ample resources. Supplies can be seasonal, and their distribution uneven or affected by unexpected climatic events. In addition to constraints on availability, risks to water quality by some types of energy production can require additional safeguards at added cost.

Looking ahead, pressures on both energy and water are set to increase. Economic growth and expanding populations, particularly in emerging economies, will drive greater demand for energy and water. Moreover, climate change portends a more water-constrained future: besides higher air and water temperatures, its expected impacts include decreasing average surface water flows; a reduction of snowpack and change in the timing of the snowmelt season; sea level rise, which will contaminate freshwater supplies; and droughts, heat waves and floods that are more frequent and more severe.

Such prospects have prompted us to spotlight the relationship between energy and water in the forthcoming World Energy Outlook 2012, which will be released on 12 November. We will include a stand-alone chapter that addresses present and future energy sector vulnerabilities to water and that estimates, for the first time, water needs by scenario, energy source and region through 2035. Our aim is to present readers with a picture of trade-offs between energy and water, and I hope that it will encourage decision makers to better integrate energy and water policies.

Fatih Birol, Chief Economist of the IEA, has been named by Forbes Magazine as one of the world’s most powerful people in terms of influence on the global energy scene, and is the Chairman of the World Economic Forum’s Energy Advisory Board. He was awarded the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 2012. In 2009, alongside awards from the Dutch and Polish governments, he received the German Federal Cross of Merit. He was awarded the Golden Honour Medal of Austria in 2007 and was made a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques by France in 2006.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) produces IEA Energy, but all analysis and views contained in the journal are those of individual authors and not necessarily those of the IEA Secretariat or IEA member countries, and are not to be construed as advice on any specific issue or situation.

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