Energy-Water-Climate Nexus Workshop in Brussels

Author: Bevan Griffiths-Sattenspiel

A number of academics assembled in Brussels this past week for a workshop on water, energy and climate change. The purpose of the event was to prepare a set of case studies that examine the links between water and energy. The case studies will appear in a special journal issue and presentation at a side event during the Big One--the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conference in Copenhagen, Denmark in December 2009.

Below are the topics covered during the event and the individuals presenting on them:

  1. Food-Water-Energy in Spain (Anna Osann, Universidad de Castilla La Mancha)

  2. How the carbon reduction policies in Australia will affect the Water-Energy Nexus (Debborah Marsh, Australian National University)

  3. Water needed for bioenergy crops in Tuscany Region of Central Italy (Anna Della Marta, )

  4. Energy-Water Nexus of Texas (Carey King, University of Texas at Austin)

  5. Underground Thermal Energy Storage in The Netherlands (Adriana Hulsmann, Watercycle Research Institute)

  6. Energy-Water Nexus - China Case Study (Xingshu Zhao, Chinese Academy of Science)

  7. Opportunities for Greenhouse Gas reductions in water and wastewater supply, use, and treatment in England and Wales (Andy Howe, Environment Agency)

  8. Conflicts and Synergies Between Climate Change policies and Sustainable Water Management (Jamie Pittock, Australian National University and WWF)

Carey King from the University of Texas at Austin attended the conference and shared information from a report he coauthored called the Energy-Water Nexus of Texas (PDF 1.95 MB). In a summary he wrote of the Brussels conference, Dr. King explains that a good way to look at the issues of water scarcity and growing energy demand is to explore the following question:

Is the sustainable and ecological mentality of water resource management going to influence the energy sector, or is the energy sector’s more exploitive and revenue-maximizing style going to overtake the water management priorities?

While the answer to this question will continue to play out over the next several years, Dr. King describes some examples that were shared at the conference:

In Australia, an ongoing drought since the beginning of this century has caused power generating stations to ask for environmental flow restrictions to be lifted for certain rivers. The problem for them is that they needed the water for cooling, but are only allowed to extract the water when flows are sufficiently high. Because the flows were not high enough due to prolonged drought, and they successful in lobbying for the removal of certain river flow restrictions, they were forced to buy water from the rural water market in Australia. This was a major cause for electricity prices rising up to 270% last year for a certain period.

In Texas, a 200 mile interbasin water transfer project (“LCRA-SAWS”) from the central coastal region of Texas to the San Antonio Water System was studied for over seven years before recently being cancelled by the water supplier, the Lower Colorado River Authority. General cost overruns were much of the issue, combined with energy costs for pumping and restrictions for freshwater inflow into the Texas bays. However, these kinds of issues are not much of a stumbling block for China trying to keep its northern, now rather dry, agricultural regions productive and growing cities healthy. The “South North Water Transfer Project” is expected to take 40 years to construct 3 main arteries, transfer 38-43 billion m3 of water per year and cost almost 500 billion yuan (~ 75 billion US dollars). Additionally, there are plans for 83 GW (almost 1/10 of the US electric capacity) of hydropower dams to be constructed from 2005 to 2020. Natural river flows are not really an issue in China. They need electricity (hydropower) and water to maintain economic growth and thus, political stability.

Dr. King concludes his summary with some interesting thoughts on biofuel production, a realm where he sees the priorities of water management losing out to energy interests:

Agriculture already withdraws and consumes the most water of any sector. Historically, this has been for food production, and using water to grow food crops has been a fundamental use of water since the dawn of civilization. Using water to grow crops that then get converted to liquid fuels, on the massive scale of billions of gallons per year, is a more recent trend. Should irrigation water be used for growing biofuel crops? Is there some target percentage of irrigation water that should be an upper limit, given that some parts of the world are still malnourished? I think this is where the debate should go. I don’t believe that agricultural energy interests should be completely shut out from irrigation, but at the same time I don’t believe we should allow full reign of aquifers and surface water for irrigating biofuels. A common argument for some 2nd generation biofuel crops such as grasses and other cellulosic material, is that they can be grown on marginal lands. Well, marginal lands are just that, so the yields will be higher with fertilizers and irrigation. If irrigated water is subsidized for these purposes, then there is no reason to believe that the drive for higher yields and more fuels will not lead to irrigating crops grown in areas where we are led to believe it will not be used.

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