Water, Energy and the World Energy Outlook

The new World Energy Outlook, the International Energy Agency’s annual lookbook of energy market analysis and projections, was released this past month and energy wonks around the world could barely contain their excitement. Here in the United States, energy experts immediately zeroed in on the report’s charismatic forecasts for the nation’s energy future, weighing in with two radically different viewpoints:

Opinion #1 : Hooray! On one side, we have those who are thrilled by the IEA’s forecast that by 2020 the US could surpass Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer, and that the North American continent as a whole could become a net exporter of oil by 2030.

Opinion #2 : Oh no. On the other side, we have those who see the drilling for and burning of previously undisturbed oil and gas deposits – and resulting release of massive amounts of CO2 – as a really, really bad thing for our global climate.

We agree with opinion number two. But while there’s already been plenty of ink spilled over the predicted birth of Saudi America, we'd like to take a moment to reflect on a less controversial, but no less important, inclusion in this year’s report: The water and energy nexus.

Ecocentric has been tracking the ways in which the energy sector relies upon huge volumes of water for everything from fracking for natural gas to cooling steam at power plants.  That’s why we're happy to see the IEA’s influential report fully explore the relationship between energy and water resources. While downloading the full World Energy Outlook will set you back 120 Euros, the bits and pieces that the IEA provides for free are pretty illuminating. One fact sheet nicely summarizes the global water/energy outlook in three points:

  • Energy is becoming thirstier: In 2010, 583 billion cubic meters – more water than is discharged each year by India’s Ganges – was withdrawn to meet the world’s growing energy needs. The IEA expects that number to rise 20 percent by 2035, and water consumption – the amount used but not returned to its source – to rise by 85 percent.
  • Water is becoming a determining factor for energy projects: Many nations are discovering that water must be a determining factor in whether or not to approve an energy project. Whether it’s water-intensive fracking in the US, construction of coal plants in drought-stricken India or oil sands production in Canada, impacts to both water quality and quantity must be balanced with the well-being of neighbors.
  • The solutions exist now: For example, advanced power plant cooling systems that cut back on water withdrawals by 95 percent already exist, and energy efficiency, wind and solar PV are virtually water-free sources of power. As the report states, however, huge subsidies for fossil fuel interests are badly distorting the world’s energy markets, putting water-friendly renewables at a disadvantage.

In short, the world has a growing energy/water problem but there are a number of tools at our disposal to address it. A lot less time and money focused on a potential 21st century American oil boom and a much more on the world’s renewable energy future (IEA says renewables will supply half of the world’s new energy capacity installed through 2035 ) would go a long way towards cutting both CO2 and the growing collision between our water and energy needs.