State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

,

The water/energy nexus

At the Columbia Water Center we frequently refer to the water/energy nexus.  I am often asked what is meant by this term.  Broadly speaking, the water/energy nexus refers to the myriad cyclical ways in which water and energy relate to, and impact, each other. Water is necessary in the production of virtually all types of energy, but energy is also needed for many methods of accessing water–most notably for pumping groundwater.  The interplay between these two sectors is exceedingly complex.

This image from a project run by energy.ca.gov
This image from a project run by energy.ca.gov

For environmentalists, a troubling example of the water/energy nexus arises in the American West, a region known for its brilliant sun and high potential for solar energy production.  Unfortunately, the region is also known for its short supply of water resources, and water is just what is needed for a popular type of solar energy production–wet cooling of solar thermal plants.  While extremely attractive, both economically and because of its minimal carbon emissions, solar thermal energy is also hugely water intensive.  As the Times reported on Oct 27, this tension is beginning to come to a head in many water-stressed areas of the region.

This presents a conundrum for many environmentalists (including me). Solar is typically considered to be one of the “good” energy alternatives due to its relatively small environmental footprint. Yet it’s clear that in spite of the many arguments in favor of solar, its drawbacks also need to be considered.  The unfortunate reality is that many regions which are so well suited to solar, for reasons related to weather and space, are also water-stressed.  This isn’t an argument against solar, but we do need to acknowledge that the potential implementation of solar, especially on a large scale, needs to be carefully evaluated in light of the water constraint.  It is also imperative that as a society we work towards breaking down barriers to the adoption of much less water-intensive types of solar production.

There are countless other examples of the interplay between water and energy issues, and while awareness of each individually seems to be on the rise, there is relatively little consideration of the actual connection between the two.   At the Water Center, we will continue to research this issue, yet it is my hope that over time, energy and water will come to be seen, not as distinct, but as two sides of the same coin.  A myopic focus on only of these  is unlikely to lead to good decisions; instead both factors should be considered as part of a holistic approach to–everyone’s favorite term–environmental sustainability.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

Subscribe
Notify of
guest

8 Comments
Oldest
Newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Meghna Bhattacharjee
Meghna Bhattacharjee
14 years ago

Thanks you for this clarifying blog. I am always surprised that this “myopic” view still exists, especially in India where the government provides energy subsidies to farmers that in turn pump out groundwater in alarming levels. If a proper understanding of the water/energy nexus could be communicated, it might lead to better water/energy management.

Jennifer Vettel
Jennifer Vettel
14 years ago

This is a great topic to be looking at, especially at this pivotal time when so much is changing in the views on water and energy. So often, these issues are tackled as separate entities, when in reality, they highly interdependent. With the great loss of groundwater and surface water as optable water sources, many areas are switchiang to alternative water sources, such as desalination. Energy costs of desalination are monumental,and to produce that energy, large amounts of water are needed for cooling the power plant. With this in mind, we must find ways to work together to implement both water conservation and energy conservation to save these precious resources.

Bevan Griffiths-Sattenspiel
14 years ago

Glad you’re covering this important topic. At River Network, we have a program devoted to helping people understand both sides of the water-energy nexus as a critical piece of addressing climate change. Our focus thus far has been on the energy/carbon emissions embedded in water and the potential for GHG reductions through water conservation, however, we are beginning to focus more on the water impacts of energy development. River Network published a white paper last spring called the Carbon Footprint of Water that you might find interesting and we also have a blog devoted entirely to this topic: http://rivernetwork.org/blog/swse.

Daniel Stellar
14 years ago

Thanks to Bevan for the comment and for alerting us to the River Network’s entire blog devoted to water and energy. The blog has a lot of great posts – as Bevan correctly observes, there are many facets to the connection between water and energy, including the carbon emissions embedded in water and the corresponding potential for GHG reductions through water use efficiency. One aspect of River Network’s blog I particularly enjoyed were suggestions for how individual actions can reduce both water and carbon consumption, such as through low flow showerheads. I recommend checking out their blog to learn more.

trackback
14 years ago

[…] possibilities are exciting, but much like with the water-energy nexus controversies involved with solar power generation, I have yet to be convinced that this technology […]

trackback
14 years ago

[…] River Network recently mentioned us on their blog, in connection with Dan Stellar’s article on the water-energy nexus. The River Network, an Oregon-based organization, aside from its main work to preserve and clean […]

trackback
14 years ago

[…] relationship between water and climate is closely related to the water/energy nexus, a frequent topic on this blog and one of our primary research areas at CWC.   Our friends at the River Network do a great job […]

trackback
13 years ago

[…] that water-energy nexus again – power plants in New York State are under scrutiny for the damage they cause to aquatic […]