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Thirsty energy: the conflict between demands for power and water

 
Water Scarcity in Maharashtra, India

Women in a Maharashtrian village pray for rain at a Shiva temple. In 2013, the state had to rein in energy production due to water scarcity. Photograph: Loren Holmes / Alamy/Alamy

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Thirsty energy: the conflict between demands for power and water” was written by Terry Slavin, for theguardian.com on Thursday 6th February 2014 17.01 UTC

The UK’s climate change minister Greg Barker and Nobel Laureate Kofi Annan will be among those meeting in Delhi this week to try to get to grips with one of the most pressing issues of our time: how to solve the conflict between the globe’s spiralling need for energy and access to water on a planet that is coming under increasing water stress.

Almost all sources of energy, including many renewable ones, require large amounts of water to produce and in India, the trade-off is stark. India wants to expand its grid to the third of rural population with no access to power, yet existing power production is often undermined by poor water management and drought. A year ago the state of Maharashtra had to shut down all six units of a 1130MW thermal power plant after water levels in the dam fell to critically low levels.

Diego Rodriguez, senior economist in the World Bank’s water unit, says India is not alone. In the US, several power plants have had to rein in production due to low water flows or water temperatures too high to cool plant. France periodically is forced to cut back nuclear power production, and hydropower production in Sri Lanka, China and Brazil have all been compromised by lower water levels caused by drought.

And the situation is predicted to get worse as rapidly expanding economies and more extreme weather conditions squeeze the world’s limited water resource. By 2035, the World Bank says, global energy consumption will increase by 35% while water use for energy will go up 85%. For the first time last year, the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook included a section on water, and warned that water constraints “can challenge the reliability of existing operations and the viability of proposed projects”.

At the Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi last month the World Bank launched its Thirsty Planet initiative to try to help countries manage the “water-energy nexus”. It is aimed squarely at the energy community, Rodriguez said, because the conventional approach of tackling it from the water perspective has not worked. “We always go from the water perspective, but if you see the minister of energy sitting beside the minister of water resources, it is pretty clear who will win in any debate.”

Rodriguez says the World Bank is offering to send in a core team to help countries integrate their water and energy planning. In most countries there is little joined up thinking about energy and water availability at the planning stages. “A country’s [water resource] is divided by watersheds while energy is divided by national, regional and sub-regional grids.”

Future expansion plans for the energy sector rarely internalise the cost of building infrastructure such as canals and pumping stations to supply water. Nor do they take into account the environmental and social impacts of water use by power plants, he says. “Even if you don’t consume the water, if you abstract it and discharge it at a different temperature there will be a potential impact on the ecosystem.”

South Africa has been experimenting with dry-cooling technologies in power plants, but these use more energy to run, and are two to four times more expensive.

And it is not only fossil fuel plants that need water for their cooling processes. Of the renewable sources, only wind power and photovoltaics use negligible amounts of water. Morocco last year awarded contracts to a Saudi consortium to build a 160MW concentrated solar power plant in the desert at Ouarzazate, with another 300MW planned. Rodriguez points out that CSP requires large amounts of water to keep the mirrors clean.

“We must understand the trade-offs. You can’t look at the water and energy sectors in isolation anymore,” Rodriguez says. “You need to have constant feedback between the two.”

This week’s conference in Delhi is only one of many this year that will highlight the issue. Global Water Intelligence, organisers of a global water summit in Paris in April, says water risk is the biggest challenge the global economy faces. It predicts that in the next 10 years everyone on the planet will “experience a water related event – a shortage, a flood, an infrastructure failure, an interruption to business, an economic disruption – which will have a bigger impact on our lives than we have ever experienced before.”

 

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