Energy Could Be Twice as Thirsty by 2035

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By Erin Weaver

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The International Energy Agency predicts that the fresh water used in global energy production could double by 2035.

International Energy Agency

Along with a projected population of nine billion people to feed—two-thirds of them living in water-stressed locations—the coming decades could see a doubling of the fresh water devoted to energy production. The International Energy Agency (IEA), in its “World Energy Outlook 2012,” attributes much of that rise to a continuing global increase in coal-fired power generation and biofuel production—both water-intensive processes.

Coal currently fuels 41% of power production worldwide; with demand for electricity expected to increase 90% by 2035, IEA predicts coal plants will continue to be responsible for more than half of all water used for energy production. Newer plants, which may cool their discharge water to protect aquatic ecosystems, can actually lose far more water to evaporation in the cooling process. Demand for coal is expected to grow in most parts of the world except the U.S., where it is being outpaced by natural gas. Despite the local impacts of hydraulic fracturing to obtain natural gas, at millions of gallons of water per well, IEA calculates that it will constitute a small percentage of global energy-related water use, with oil and natural gas production combined amounting to only 10% of the total demand in 2035.

Biofuels are predicted to use the second-largest share of water, at 30%, largely through evaporation during spray irrigation of fuel crops. While other methods of irrigation can reduce evaporation, they tend to use more electricity than surface spraying—thus contributing indirectly to the demand for water.

IEA recommends a shift to renewable energy as the best way to reduce the stress on the “water-energy nexus,” with electricity generated from wind and solar power requiring minimal water to produce.

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March 15, 2013