February 3, 2011

Thirsty Energy, Scarce Water

Stephen Solomon, "Thirsty Energy, Scarce Water," is an excellent summation of the interdependencies between water and energy scarcity. The article appeared in the December 2010 issue of the Journal of Energy Security. Solomon is the author of WATER: The Epic Struggle for Power, Wealth, and Civilization. 
The dawning era of global freshwater scarcity is threatening the ability of more and more nations, including the US, to produce the energy needed for economic growth and national security. As a result, energy and water can no longer be addressed as separate challenges. A new paradigm of resource planning and management must be devised that treats water and energy as inseparable, complementary components of a linked continuum, where policy choices in one realm alter options and outcomes in the other.

Pumping, conveying, and treating water is extremely energy intensive. Water is very heavy—8 1/3rd pounds per gallon, or 20% more than oil—and massive volumes are required to sustain modern society: to irrigate the crops that feed us, to manufacture industrial goods from semiconductors to steel, to mine raw materials from the earth, to maintain shipping watercourse flows, to provide domestic needs for drinking, hygiene and sanitation, as well as to meet society’s enormous energy needs. To give some idea of the magnitude-of-scale, each day every person living in an industrialized nation personally consumes about one thousand gallons—over 4 tons of water—embedded in the food we eat; a typical semiconductor plant uses as much water as a city of 50,000. While the thirteen-fold increase in energy use in the 20th century is often heralded as the signature, catalytic factor in the unprecedented prosperity of a world population that has quadrupled to over 6 billion, it has been accompanied and also leveraged by a nine-fold increase in freshwater use. As the global freshwater scarcity crisis mounts, the competition between sectors for limited, clean fresh water supplies is growing increasingly fierce--and not all vital uses can be fully satisfied. . . .
While water use for industry and agricultural irrigation in rich countries has tapered off since the 1980s, energy’s water thirst continues to soar unquenchably. America’s national energy security strategy to reduce reliance on foreign fossil fuels depends upon building out unconventional and renewable domestic alternatives that are presently several orders of magnitude more water intensive than the conventional sources they are supplanting. This potential water chokepoint has not been adequately factored into national projections or energy security analysis, in part because the end of the long era of cheap and abundant freshwater represents a conceptually new, fundamental change in our historical framework.

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