Thirsty Energy

In ITP, Networked Sensors for Development

For this week, we were asked to analyze a piece of research on energy. After looking at agriculture, climate change, as well as the water crisis, you realize that all of the issues are deeply interlinked.  I never understood the extent in which energy extraction, processing and production relies on water and this led me to look at the Thirsty Energy report from the World Bank as a starting point for this post.


“Today, more than 780 million people lack access to potable water, and over 1.3 billion people lack access to electricity. At the same time, estimates show that by 2035, global energy consumption will increase by 35%, while water consumption by the energy sec­tor will increase by 85%. Climate change will further challenge water and energy management by causing more water variability and intensified weather events, such as severe floods and droughts.” – (Source, Thirsty Energy Report)


There are various forces that influence energy decisions at a national level. An issue that defined presidential agendas in recent history was energy independence. However, you don’t hear about it as much anymore because America has actually become one of the largest energy exporters in the world. The shift in sentiment is due to the availability of cheap coal domestically, as well as the boom in oil and gas production thanks to hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and the drilling of shale rock.


“These schemes exemplify a big switch in America’s energy industry. The terminals [referencing oil infrastructure in Texas] had been designed to handle imports, at a time when the glory days of American oil and gas seemed gone for good. Lingering memories of those days, and particularly of long queues at filling stations after the oil shocks of the 1970s, still leave politicians and the public twitchy about exports of energy products…Yet America already sends plenty of energy abroad (see chart). It is the world’s largest exporter of refined products such as diesel, petrol (gasoline) and aviation fuel (kerosene). It is a net exporter of coal and this year will become a net exporter of gas, too. American waterborne LPG exports have overtaken those of many big Arab producers and the country will surpass Qatar to become the world’s largest by 2020, says IHS, a consulting firm.” – (Source, The Economist)


Energy independence was considered a matter of national security, which is pretty much the trump card in politics. The goal was to increase production domestically to alleviate our dependance on the middle east. This determination by our current administration may have made them  blind to the implications of these new methods of harvesting fossil fuels. While fracking and drilling shale rock has led to a renaissance in the American energy sector, it may lead us down a dangerous path when it comes what will replace “black gold” as the world’s most coveted resource—”clear gold” or water. There are many debates over fracking, particularly whether it contaminates our potable resources; however, if fracking is done correctly, that is not of great concern. The more frightening issue is that whether fracking is done properly or improperly, it is one of the most water intensive methods of extracting fuels. There’s no question that energy independence is of the utmost importance for a nation like ours, however, we need to start placing much more weight on water when deciding how we extract and process our fuels. That’s where the Thirst Energy initiative from the World Bank could be a huge help, as they “break disciplinary silos that prevent cross-sectoral planning”.


“Every fracking job requires 2 million to 4 million gallons of water, according to the Groundwater Protection Council. The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, has estimated that the 35,000 oil and gas wells used for fracking consume between 70 billion and 140 billion gallons of water each year. That’s about equal, EPA says, to the water use in 40 to 80 cities with populations of 50,000 people, or one to two cities with a population of 2.5 million each…Ceres found that 47 percent of these wells were in areas “with high or extremely high water stress” because of large withdrawals for use by industry, agriculture, and municipalities. In Colorado, for example, 92 percent of the wells were in extremely high water-stress areas, and in Texas more than half were in high or extremely high water-stress areas.” – (Source, ThinkProgress)


Another issue that influences national energy policy, albeit a much smaller influence, is the carbon footprint of the energy we use. “Thankfully”, with climate change becoming more and more undeniable as a man-made phenomenon, the number of people that realize we need to change our behaviors is rising. But even they, and myself included, don’t always realize that what may seem as the more sustainable solution could bring us into a completely different crisis. My family is French and I’ve never understood the stigma that nuclear power has in the America. It’s a clean way to provide cheap energy to the citizens of a country. France successfully produces roughly 80% of their energy using nuclear power, which is miles ahead of coal when it comes to environmental impact. However, I never took into account the amount of water needed for the cooling process in nuclear reactors. On top of which, with temperatures rising, sometimes the water is too warm and the nuclear plants need to suspend operations.


“France has been forced to reduce or halt energy production in nuclear power plants due to high water temperatures threatening cooling processes during heatwaves.” – (Source, Thirsty Energy Report)


This is just another example of how intertwined our resource ecosystem is. The only solution is to evaluate is specific area’s energy needs and water constraints to come up with the best long term solution. Energy and water can no longer be treated a two separate issues and I hope the Thirsty Energy philosophy gets traction on a much larger scale.



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