Energy policymakers worldwide should look beyond supply security and environmental questions and consider water resource availability if they expect to succeed, experts said May 3 during a forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
“Water has become the Achilles heel of some energy projects,” said M. Michael Hightower, who leads the Water for Energy Project at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque. “Many of the world’s energy resources are in very dry areas. We have to start coming up with solutions now. It’s not something we can put off for another 10 years.”
Supplies are growing increasingly scarce in many US basins, he noted during the forum, “The Thirsty Triangle: The Water Footprint of Energy Trade Between China, Canada, and the United States.” Permits for some renewable and conventional energy facilities already have been denied because water supplies weren’t available, he said.
“We eventually could see 50% less than there is today in several of them,” Hightower said, adding, “When the US surface water inventory reached its peak in 1980 and no new dams were constructed, energy industries turned to groundwater. They’ve mined that to a point now that they’re producing more salt than fresh water. It’s unsustainable.”
Data from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggest many dry global areas will become drier, he continued. “Most developed and many developing countries are going to feel water availability impacts similar to China, Canada, and the US,” he said.
Qingwei Sun, a climate and energy campaign with Greenpeace China, confirmed that country’s energy and water supplies are in different areas. China has 3,000 coal-fired power plants and shows little inclination of moving to other fuels, he said. “If the government subsidized photovoltaics, it would be a breakthrough,” he added.
Agriculture is more significant nationally than energy in Canada’s overall trade picture, according to Steven Renzetti, an economics professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont. “Canada, by far, is the largest water user in the world,” he said, adding that the country’s oil and gas industry consumes a comparatively modest amount compared to thermal power generation, municipalities, manufacturing, agriculture, and mining.
“Agriculture has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to improve water use technologies,” Renzetti said. “The same is true of oil and gas. Water intensity has gone down in both areas.” Oil and gas withdraws 1% of the water Canada’s industries use, compared to agriculture’s 10%, but still needs to reduce its water demand another 20%, he said.
Canada’s agricultural land quality is improving, but its water quality is not, Renzetti said. “Let’s coordinate the pricing of water and carbon,” he suggested. “We need expanded monitoring, better regulation of non-point source pollution, improved valuation, and prices for water and carbon for conservation and innovation.”
Hightower said that three good technologies for reducing carbon emissions—nuclear power, concentrated solar, and carbon capture and sequestration—also require a lot of water. Combined cycle gas with wind or solar might be one solution, he indicated. “We’ll also need to balance returns on investments with water and other natural resource impacts,” he said.
“The Canadians have done a very good job of recycling water they use for oil sands production, and have used brackish water in some cases,” Hightower said. “The same thing is happening in the US where producers who wanted only freshwater 3-4 years ago are recycling and use water with higher [total dissolved solids] levels.
“Canada’s oil and gas industry is a few years ahead, but the US is catching up,” he observed. “Water costs are the reason why.”
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