There is no energy without water

It is worth repeating; there is no energy without water. Obvious examples that spring to mind, including hydropower (throughput), nuclear (cooling) and marginal gas (fracturing), certainly support the maxim, but less well known is the fact that water is also essential in conventional oil and gas exploration (drilling, well completion, enhanced recovery) and in coal and uranium production (separation of impurities, fire and dust suppression, tailings and drainage). Energy and water are so intimately related that, in Europe as a whole, energy production accounts for 44 per cent of all water abstraction. To your and my likely surprise, this compares with 24 per cent of abstracted water used in agriculture, 21 per cent for public water supply, and 11 per cent for industrial purposes.

The reverse axiom is also true: there is no water without energy, for energy is needed to abstract, treat and transport water. The American Institute of Chemical Engineers, for example, estimates that four per cent of all power generation in the US is used for water supply and treatment, and that electricity accounts 75 per cent of the cost of municipal water processing and distribution. Water and energy are so closely and importantly linked that failure to account for both resources in production and consumption decisions – for example, by assessing one in isolation of the other – will only result in partial outcomes. A coordinated approach to energy and water has the potential to bring savings to both sectors, with the added-value of lower overall environmental impact as well.

Europe is the world’s largest virtual water import region with 41% of the water footprint of European consumers coming from outside Europe [Hoekstra & Mekonnen, 2012].

Clearly, the two are embedded in everything we do. And with a greater proportion of water and energy coming from overseas  (41 and 54* per cent respectively), there will be an enormous pressure on these precious assets. But currently there are no specific European regulations linking energy efficiency and water savings, only general communications relating to resource efficiency and innovation partnerships. Thus, there is an opportunity to formulate targets and corresponding commitments, as the European Commission is attempting to do, later this year, with its ‘Blueprint’ to Safeguard Europe’s Water Resources, and with Green Week, which is occurring all this week throughout Europe.

As persuasively communicated by a series of Green Week panellists, we have simply no choice; if we want things to stay the same, things will have to change. Increasing scarcity and rising prices mean we have to do more with less. In doing so, we must also avoid allocating resources to only one use (our luxuries), for then they are unavailable for our other uses (our essentials). The budding ‘blueprint’ offers a powerful opportunity for achieving a more sustainable, efficient and equitable future for Europe.

* 2009 value, although this figure does not include renewable electricity and uranium imports (which, in 2009, had a 97.3 per cent import dependency by gross weight). If renewables imports (tiny) and natural uranium are included (assuming a light-water, open-cycle, ‘normal’ nuclear reactor, with a conversion efficiency of 120 tU per 1000 toe [1] [2]), the EU-27 import energy dependency is 60 per cent or greater.

About Paul Parrish

Paul was the Policy and Advocacy Officer of the Sustainable Energy Security programme between November 2010 and November 2012.
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