by Matt Palmer
January 31, 2013
The amount of fresh water used globally for energy production is going to double by 2035 according to a new report by the International Energy Agency (IEA). This news is a concern for all of us as we increasingly face a water-constrained future, but the question is what can we do about it. This article from the National Geographic’s series “The Great Energy Challenge” details some of the main issues around water use in energy production, with a few details that will be surprising for some.
Much of the increased water use will come as result of energy production from two sources: coal and biofuels. The IEA predicts that water use from fracking, will be less than expected. The production of unconventional oil and gas currently uses lots of water, but recycling technologies, in some cases over 90%, greatly reduce overall consumption. This is important because production of natural gas is expected to grow by 60%.
The biofuel industry is fighting back against the IEA projections of a 242% increase in water use, saying the agency overestimates water use and technological improvements. Still, biofuels are less energy dense than oil and gas, and it is important to consider the energy inputs needed in the creation of biofuels. There is still a concern over food crops being used for ethanol production, but second generation biofuels do not typically use food crops, but they may still be land intensive. Algae ponds use a lot of land, as do things like switchgrass.
The point is not to denigrate particular energy sources, but to bring greater awareness to the inputs needed to harness energy, and then incentivizing new technologies that can produce meaningful impacts towards reduction. Energy consumption will continue rising, even as first world countries are experiencing levelling off or reductions in overall consumption. People in the developing world want the standard of living we enjoy, and energy consumption in places like China and India are going to continue to rise for many years to come.
The challenge is finding ways to innovate with regards to energy production, reduce energy demand, while providing a comfortable standard of living to a growing global population. The good news is there is lots of amazing work going on in this field, and we need to continue to inspire great minds to continue this important work through increased corporate R&D and government led regulations and incentives.
The nexus of food, water and energy is the most critical issue facing humanity. While this is a global issue, each of us has a role to play in the solutions as individuals, families, and as community members. If you know of a story of people and communities that are making a difference in these areas, we would love to know about them as potential story subjects for our project.