Thirsty Energy: Making the Energy-Water Nexus Work For Us


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Energy-Water NexusIn July, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released reports (see U.S. Energy Sector Vulnerabilities to Climate Change and Extreme Weather and Water-Smart Power: Strengthening the U.S. Electricity System in a Warming World) highlighting the energy sector’s vulnerability to future water constraints.  The reports’ findings paint a worrisome picture: currently, 60% of coal power plants in the U.S. are experiencing water stress; hydropower is threatened due to more frequent and severe droughts; and energy infrastructure is endangered by water variability due to climate change.

Water is critical for producing power, and vice versa. Almost all energy generation processes require significant amounts of water, and the treatment and transport of water requires energy, mainly in the form of electricity. Even though the interdependency between water and energy is gaining wider recognition worldwide, water and energy planning often remain distinct. The tradeoffs involved in balancing one need against the other in this “energy-water nexus,” as it is called, are often not clearly identified or taken into account, complicating possible solutions.

Population and economic growth, urbanization, and increasing demand for food and energy place competing pressures on water. According to the IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2012, water consumption for energy generation will increase by 85% over 2010 to 2035, posing a serious challenge to many countries around the world.

In the U.S. several power plants were affected by low water flows or high water temperatures.  In India, in February 2013, a thermal power plant with installed capacity of 1130 MW shut down due to a severe water shortage in the Marathwada region. France was forced to reduce or halt production in nuclear power plants in the past, due to high water temperatures threatening cooling processes during heatwaves. Recurring and prolonged droughts are threatening hydropower capacity in many countries, such as Sri Lanka, China and Brazil. These stresses will mount as emerging economies, like China, will double their energy consumption in the next 40 years.

To mitigate the challenges of the nexus, the World Bank Group recently started Thirsty Energy, a global initiative in partnership with the World Bank's water and energy departments and supported by the Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP). Thirsty Energy will contribute to the Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) initiative by evaluating trade-offs and synergies between water and energy planning. It will also identify potential constraints resulting from their interdependency, and develop evidence-based operational tools to assist developing countries assess the economic and social implications of water constraints in energy security and power expansion plans. See Thirsty Energy, the first paper in a series of working papers.

One of the pilot countries selected for Thirsty Energy is South Africa, a country with important water issues and large energy expansion plans. The Bank is working with partners there to incorporate water allocation quantities by catchment area and marginal costs in energy optimization tools and plans. This enables planners to assess, using economic tools, whether or not, or to what extent, cross-sectoral competition will impact the technology mix in energy generation. Through case studies such as this, the Bank aims to reduce energy projects’ vulnerability to water constraints, and encourage water and energy to be planned in an integrated manner to maximize benefits. Through Thirsty Energy, the Bank and its partners will work to break disciplinary silos that prevent cross-sectoral planning and learning and to ensure the “sustainability” factor in Sustainable Energy for All.

Miguel Rodríguez Tejerina
December 09, 2013

It's good news to know that the trade-offs and synergies between water and energy are being explored, as both are critical issues for development, individually and combined. I am confident the WB will elaborate high quality products that will help orient development efforts.
I wish to mention a regional project in South America that is related to this subject, called Cities Footprints, which assesses the Carbon and Water Footprints of La Paz (Bolivia), Lima (Peru) and Quito (Ecuador). I would like to invite you to see more in the project website, and to invite to consider selecting one of these cities, which are vulnerable to glacier retreat and water security, and thus energy security in the form of a vicious cycle, as you highlight, as a pilot city. Look forward to your reply. Regards.

Diego Juan Rodriguez
February 04, 2014

Many thanks for sharing with us this interesting initiative on Cities Footprints. The synergies between water and energy are very clear in the cities in South America and we are glad to see assessments being undertaken in La Paz, Lima, and Quito.Our initiative responds to demands from the governments of our client countries. As we begin to engage with our clients in Latin America we will raise potential support to these cities. Please keep us informed on the advances of this project. Best.

Miguel Rodríguez Tejerina
February 04, 2014

Thank you for your reply. Just wish to know if subnational entities (such as cities) are eligible, or if the program aims only at the national level? Kind regards

Juan Sebastian Ossa
July 25, 2014

Diego, I was wondering if as a group, you have analysed the possibility of taking advantage of future extreme discharges in many rivers worldwide. It is widely known that global warming will intensify extreme periods, both droughts and floods, therefore a possibility would be to optimise water usage during droughts, but also figure out how to store water or energy during extreme wet periods, in order to use them afterwards. This would also help reducing the negative effects of floods in many communities.
Kind Regards