Energy Demands Draining World's Precious Water Supply

The tug boat "Fred Way" pushes a barge full of coal past the John E. Amos Coal Power Plant. (Photo: Wigwam Jones via Flickr)

Energy Demands Draining World's Precious Water Supply

Projection: If we maintain our current path, demand will double by 2035

According to a recent piece by National Geographic, if international leaders continue to ignore the growing demand for new, renewable energy sources by maintaining their current fossil-fuel dependent energy policies, the amount of fresh water needed to produce the world's energy will double in the next 25 years.

This is particularly troubling because of the impending water scarcity crisis. The United Nations predicts that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in regions with "severe water scarcity" and two-thirds of the world's population could be living under "water-stressed conditions."

According to projections by the International Energy Agency (IEA), if world economies continue their reliance on fossil and bio fuels, by 2035 the amount of water consumed for energy production each year would increase from 66 billion cubic meters (bcm) to 135 bcm.

National Geographic reports:

That's an amount equal to the residential water use of every person in the United States over three years, or 90 days' discharge of the Mississippi River. It would be four times the volume of the largest U.S. reservoir, Hoover Dam's Lake Mead.

More than half of that drain would be from coal-fired power plants and 30 percent attributable to biofuel production, in IEA's view. The agency estimates oil and natural gas production together would account for 10 percent of global energy-related water demand in 2035.

"Energy and water are tightly entwined," says director of the Global Water Policy Project Sandra Postel. "It takes a great deal of energy to supply water, and a great deal of water to supply energy. With water stress spreading and intensifying around the globe, it's critical that policymakers not promote water-intensive energy options."

The report continues by breaking down the IEA's figures on consumption by fuel type. Those projected to be most demanding include coal, biofuels and shale gas and oil, which necessitate water-intensive fracking technologies for extraction.


In the energy realm, IEA sees coal-powered electricity driving the greatest demand for water now and in the future. Coal power is increasing in every region of the world except the United States, and may surpass oil as the world's main source of energy by 2017. [...]

If today's trends hold steady on the number of coal plants coming on line and the cooling technologies being employed, water consumption for coal electricity would jump 84 percent, from 38 to 70 billion cubic meters annually by 2035, IEA says. Coal plants then would be responsible for more than half of all water consumed in energy production.


The agency anticipates a 242 percent increase in water consumption for biofuel production by 2035, from 12 billion cubic meters to 41 bcm annually.

The potential drain on water resources is especially striking when considered in the context of how much energy IEA expects biofuels will deliver--an amount that is relatively modest, in part because ethanol generally produces less energy per gallon than petroleum-based fuels. [...] IEA projects that under current government policies, biofuels' contribution will edge up to just 5 percent of the world's (greatly increased) transportation demand by 2035, but fuel processed from plant material will by then be drinking 72 percent of the water in primary energy production.

Shale gas and oil

[With the surge of new fracking technologies] water consumption for natural gas production would increase 86 percent to 2.85 billion cubic meters by 2035, when the world will produce 61 percent more natural gas than it does today, IEA projects. Similarly, water consumption for oil production would slightly outpace oil production itself, growing 36 percent in a world producing 25 percent more oil than today, under IEA's current policies scenario.

Those global projections may seem modest in light of the local water impact of fracking projects. Natural gas industry sources in the shale gas hot spot of Pennsylvania, for instance, say that about 4 million gallons (15 million liters) of water are required for each fracked well, far more than the 100,000 gallons (378,540 liters) conventional Pennsylvania wells once required.


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