Energy production requires significant amounts of water; and pumping, treating, and transporting water is energy intensive. This interdependency affects almost every facet of our lives, and yet initiatives to protect its future are primarily being pursued through isolated silos of activities. Recognizing the need for integration, the Department of Energy’s (DOE) latest report The Water-Energy Nexus: Challenges and Opportunities emphasizes the necessity for strategic planning and data-driven solutions. Successful management of the water-energy nexus in the coming decades, however, will require overcoming the following obstacles:
- Population Growth – A larger population requires more resources, which requires greater amounts of energy and water to produce. According to the DOE report, U.S. energy demand for water and wastewater treatment already increased by more than 30 percent between 1996 and 2013 in the United States, primarily due to population increases. With the U.S. Census Bureau predicting the U.S. population will surpass 400 million by 2050 , a 25% increase from the current population, water resources are expected to become even more scarce.
- Climate Change – The effects of climate change, such as climbing temperatures, rising sea levels, and more frequent extreme weather events could make management of the water-energy nexus less predictable and damage infrastructure in the process. For example, the massive U.S. drought in 2012 slowed energy production throughout the country, and Superstorm Sandy caused severe damage to the water infrastructure. While the effects of climate change are unpredictable, preparedness and resilience will be crucial to mitigate risks to energy and water infrastructure and ensure reliable resources.
- Policy Variations – Legislative obstacles will add weight to the burden on the water-energy nexus. Water and energy regulations differ from state to state in the U.S., and currently, only nine states recognize the existence of the water-energy nexus in legislation. In these states, water-nexus policies include restrictions on how much freshwater can be used in factories, reductions of wasteful resource consumption, and development of efficient energy systems. A more integrated approach with regard to energy and water conservation would be beneficial for management of the nexus from a policy perspective.
While the challenges that confront the water-energy nexus continue to evolve, so too do our strategies for integration and innovation. The Department of Energy highlights specific technological opportunities, such as the development of advanced cooling systems, the addition of more efficient equipment, and the conservation of freshwater in industrial processes. Private sector and non-profit organizations have already taken steps to pursue these options. For example, my colleagues at Nexight Group recently collaborated with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and Water Environment Federation to strategize and facilitate discussion on reusing municipal wastewater at power facilities.
Ultimately, DOE recommends building on existing technology, collaborating with stakeholders, and developing understanding, all of which require a thorough awareness of the complexities the water-energy relationship presents. As DOE Deputy Undersecretary for Science and Energy Michael Knotek recently remarked, “…if you can understand the problems, you can solve them. But you’d better understand them first. And you’d better get a sense of urgency. We have to start preparing for the future.”