The Water-Energy Nexus


By Ashley M. Knotts

Energy production technologies and trends in energy consumption have changed drastically over the last century.  Rapid population growth, increasingly energy-demanding lifestyles, and the exploitation of energy resources from fossil fuels to nuclear power have all helped to shape this vastly different energy landscape.  They have also prompted the need for a closer look into the economic, environmental, and security implications of energy alternatives, and the increasing demand these alternatives are placing on water resources.  To address these issues, Diana Glassman, a consultant to EBG Capital, introduced her new World Policy Institute paper, titled “The Water-Energy Nexus: Adding Water to the Energy Agenda.” The paper—co-authored by WPI President Michele Wucker and WPI Research Associates Tanushree Isaacman and Corinne Champilou—aims to provide non-partisan, comprehensive information about the role of water in energy production.

On Tuesday, the World Policy Institute, in collaboration with Bloomberg New Energy Finance and EBG Capital, hosted the launch of Glassman’s paper to a diverse audience, including professionals in the economic, political, health, and environmental sectors.  Glassman was joined by Jon Anda, the head of UBS Securities Environmental Markets Group, and Bill Bellamy, Senior Vice President and Water Technology Fellow at CH2M Hill, for a discussion moderated by Dimitra Christakou, the head of Water Services at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The three discussed the struggle between water and energy needs, and the ways in which water quality and abundance are being considered—or neglected—on the energy agenda.

Glassman and Bellamy began by explaining that, although carbon-reducing technologies may offer a cleaner alternative to coal, growing populations and the globalization of consumption-driven lifestyles will undoubtedly make water scarcity an important security and economic issue. Anda agreed, emphasizing that policymakers must consider the implications of acting too quickly or relying too heavily on water to satisfy energy needs.  According to Anda, it is especially important not to focus on the use of water for energy to the exclusion of alternatives that may prove to be more cost-effective and environmentally friendly.

Anda was particularly keen to note that it is natural to question the advantages of nuclear technology in the wake of recent events in Japan. Yet he argued that policymakers, environmentalists, and individuals should not be too quick to reject this carbon-free energy source—especially when one considers the financial, safety, and ecological risks associated with alternatives like coal mining and deep-sea drilling.

The panelists also touched briefly on the economic implications of water consumptive energy production in water scarce regions.  Questions on the table included who will pay for water, how much it will cost, and should access to water be free, since it is difficult to determine who owns “water rights.”

Bellamy pointed out that we have already seen the effects of water scarcity on energy production in India, where consumption is exceeding energy output in water-scarce regions.  He suggested that the problem will only grow along with the world’s population and modernization, which will result in increased energy and water consumption. Glassman took an optimistic tone in observing that ongoing research and development in areas like green jet fuel and natural gas-fired power plants might offer potential alternatives to coal and other water consumptive sources of energy.

The discussion was intended to be more of an examination of the water-energy nexus than an opportunity to offer prescriptive options. But one clear message that emerged was that energy policy must be developed in a way that carefully balances water availability and quality, national security, and financial costs and benefits, without losing sight of the short- and long-term environmental effects of these decisions.

Ashley M. Knotts is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ontario Power Generation

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“The Water-Energy Nexus: Adding to the Energy Agenda.” Diana Glassman, Michele Wucker, Tanushree Isaacman, and Corinne Champilou. New York: World Policy Institute, March 2011.

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