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The Energy Sector is One of the Largest Consumers of Water


The implications of the global water footprint of energy generation are phenomenal, writes Gary Bilotta of the University of Brighton. He warns that if policy makers fail to take into account the links between energy and water, we may come to a point in many parts of the world where it is water availability that is the main determinant of the energy sources available for use. Courtesy The Conversation.

With a quarter of the world’s human population already living in regions that suffer from severe water scarcity for at least six months of the year, it is perhaps not surprising that the World Economic Forum recently rated water crises as the largest global risk in terms of potential impacts over the next decade.

Electricity generation is a significant consumer of water: it consumes more than five times as much water globally as domestic uses (drinking, preparing food, bathing, washing clothes and dishes, flushing toilets and the rest) and more than five times as much water globally as industrial production.

Gary Bilotta figure 1

Figure 1: Water abstraction for human activities globally, based on data from Mekonnen et al., (2015) and Hoekstra and Mekonnen (2012). Gary Bilotta, Author provided


While electricity generation consumes far less water than food production globally, it is expected that there will be enormous changes in the water demands of electricity over the course of the 21st century. The International Energy Agency projected a rise of 85% in global water use for energy production between 2012 and 2032 alone.

If policy makers fail to take into account the links between energy and water, we may come to a point in many parts of the world where it is water availability that is the main determinant of the energy sources available for use

These changes will be driven by a combination of factors. First, human population growth, which is estimated to rise from 7.4 billion people today to between 9.6 to 12.3 billion by 2100. Second, by improvements in access to energy for the 1.4 billion people who currently have no access to electricity and the billion people who currently only have access to unreliable electricity networks. And third, progressive electrification of transport and heating as part of efforts to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Exactly how these changes in the water footprint of electricity are going to play out will depend on the national and international energy policies enacted over the next few decades. Historically, energy policies have been influenced by a multitude of factors (national availability of energy resources, financial costs, reliability of supply, security of supply and the like).

Following on from the Paris COP21 agreement, the carbon footprint of energy should have an increased influence on decision making in the sector. As can be seen from Figure 2, there are considerable differences in the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from different electricity generation technologies (g CO2eq/kWh), with average values ranging from just 4g CO2eq/kWh for hydropower to 1,001g CO2eq/kWh for coal, though there are significant regional and technological variations in values reported for the same energy source.

Gary Bilotta figure 2

Figure 2: Lifecycle assessments of greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation technologies (g CO2eq/kWh), displaying minimum, median and maximum reported values for each technology, based on IPCC literature reviews. Gary Bilotta, Author provided


Thirsty work

While it is important to consider these factors in policy making within the energy sector, it would be a wasted opportunity if policy makers were to overlook the other environmental footprints of electricity generation – and in particular the water footprint – when making decisions on which technologies to support and prioritise. The fairest way to compare electricity sources in terms of their water demand, is to consider their lifecycle water footprint – the consumptive demand of water for construction and operation of the plant, fuel supply, waste disposal and site decommissioning, per unit of net energy produced.

As can be seen from Figure 3, there are staggering differences in the water footprint of different electricity generation technologies. Minimum life cycle consumptive water footprints vary from 0.01 litres per kWh for wind energy, to 1.08 litres per kWh for storage-type hydroelectric power, though there are significant regional and technological variations in values reported for the same energy source. (Note that water footprint data represent the ‘blue’ water footprint, i.e. the consumption of water resources – from rivers, lakes and groundwater – whereby consumption refers to the volume of water that evaporates or is incorporated into a product. The blue water footprint is thus often smaller than the total water withdrawal, because generally part of the total water withdrawal returns to the ground or surface water.)

gary bilotta figure 3

Figure 3: Life-cycle assessments of consumptive water use (litres per kWh) of different electricity generation technologies, displaying minimum and maximum reported values for each technology based on data from Mekonnen et al (2015). Gary Bilotta, Author provided


When these differences between sources are scaled up by the number of units of electricity required to meet the needs of the global population, the implications of the global water footprint of energy generation are phenomenal. Failure to plan and consider the water demands of energy will likely result in insecure and unreliable energy supplies and negative effects on the other important users of freshwater.

We have recently observed the impacts of droughts on US energy supplies from thermoelectric plants and hydropower plants. If policy makers fail to take into account the links between energy and water, we may come to a point in many parts of the world where it is water availability that is the main determinant of the energy sources available for use.

This will inevitably force countries to make emergency decisions on the distribution of scarce water between generating electricity or producing food, maintaining health and sanitation, maintaining industrial production, and/or conserving nature.

Energy Post

92 Comments on "The Energy Sector is One of the Largest Consumers of Water"

  1. makati1 on Mon, 27th Jun 2016 9:46 am 

    Boat, the world is already in recession and slipping into depression, or doesn’t current events tell you anything? For instance, by old standards, the Us unemployment is about 23%, not less than 5%. Zero interest for what, 7 years, should tell you that the world economy is in collapse mode. Just because it is not in the news you read ,doesn’t mean it is not happening.

  2. Croatian Holiday Maker on Mon, 27th Jun 2016 10:10 am 

    ghung’s link is revealing. It looks as if the continental Europeans are taking no steps whatsoever to keep the Brits in the union and insist that they pack their bags as soon as possible, where it are the Brits that begin to drag their feet. This is so hillarious.

    Hint to Spain: take back Gibraltar now when the iron is still hot and give continental Europeans control over Gibraltar, the Meditarrenenan and the Suez Canal and not the Anglos. Europe can bunker oil from the west side of Saudi-Arabia.

  3. Croatian Holiday Maker on Mon, 27th Jun 2016 10:17 am 

    As a reminder, the Chinese are busy setting up their first military base in Djibouti:

    That is: the other side of the Red Sea. Spain finally taking back Gibraltar will change the geostrategic picture dramatically and potentially drive out Anglosphere out of the Eurasian heartland: Meditarenean, Black Sea and Red Sea. China can be serviced by Russia and Europa from the Middle East. Everybody happy (except Washington).

  4. GregT on Mon, 27th Jun 2016 10:18 am 

    “You don’t need non-renewable energy for resource extraction, refinement, manufacturing, distribution, repair or maintenance.”

    But you do need non-renewable resources. Anything that requires non-renewable resources is by it’s very nature not sustainable. Fossil fuels are not the only resources that are finite, and just as it is with fossil fuels, it is with all other non-renewable resources. We have picked the lowest hanging fruit first, and are destroying our one and only biosphere as a consequence.

    We entered a period of ever diminishing returns decades ago. Collapse is a process, and that process is already well underway.

  5. Croatian Holiday Maker on Mon, 27th Jun 2016 10:29 am 

    Greg, I have been reading your post three times over but you give no argument as to where exactly in a wind and solar energy economy with pumped hydro for storage you need fossil fuel. Be specific.

    My impression is that you are so heavily committed to that idea that you can’t have a solar economy without fossil, that it is difficult to paddle back. Are you an instructor or something or did you write a book?

    Rethorical, don’t want to know the answer.

  6. GregT on Mon, 27th Jun 2016 10:29 am 

    “My back is still sore from the BC doom forecast. Not one of you doomers said he was wrong.”

    BC was correct Boat. He foresaw a big market correction heading into 2016. By Jan 12 2016 over 1 trillion dollars in wealth evaporated into thin air.

    Some were smart enough to reduce their exposure to the markets beforehand. Others, such as yourself, still haven’t quite figured things out. How’s that S&P 500 working out for you Boat? You gonna keep riding that ship to the bottom?

  7. GregT on Mon, 27th Jun 2016 11:09 am 

    “you give no argument as to where exactly in a wind and solar energy economy with pumped hydro for storage you need fossil fuel. Be specific.”

    No need for wind, solar, or hydro storage here CHM. Our local electricity is 100% hydro electric. That has no bearing what-so-ever on an economy that relies heavily on natural resources, extracted, refined, manufactured, and distributed with fossil fuels.

    “My impression is that you are so heavily committed to that idea that you can’t have a solar economy without fossil, that it is difficult to paddle back.”

    I am not saying that there won’t be a “solar economy”, and as a matter of fact, I am positioning myself for that inevitability. The vast majority are not, and continue to believe that some semblance of BAU can be maintained with ever diminishing returns. Nothing could be further from reality.

    Learning to get by with much less is the future, and that future will be location specific. Unless of course CC goes non-linear. If it does than all bets are off for the continuation of our species. There is no point in having that discussion with you, as you have made it very clear that you are firmly in the denial camp.

  8. JuanP on Mon, 27th Jun 2016 11:25 am 

    Boat “… when electric cars hit around 20 million per year… ”

    Where are the minerals to make those batteries going to come from, Boat? I guess in your mind we have more Lithium than we need on this planet, too!

    I do agree with you that a collapse is coming, but I think it will happen in less than 10 years. As a matter of fact, I see it starting now all over the world, particularly in the USA where I live. And everyday I meet more and more people who understand that the USA is declining, even if they still don’t understand that this decline will lead to a total collapse.

  9. GregT on Mon, 27th Jun 2016 11:47 am 

    “Where are the minerals to make those batteries going to come from, Boat?”

    Never mind the batteries. EVs are heavily reliant on plastics and composites. They also require the maintenance of roads, bridges, and tunnels. All of which are completely reliant on fossil fuels.

  10. PracticalMaina on Mon, 27th Jun 2016 12:11 pm 

    GregT, no effect once so ever on the local economy? I understand what your getting at, but that is a broad and overreaching statement IMHO. You still have high power rates correct? So that money that is not being wasted on the consumption of coal or other fossil fuels goes where? To pay to update and maintain the hydro system? Making your area more resilient in the uncertain future, that should at least drive up the property value for the doomsteaders 🙂

  11. GregT on Mon, 27th Jun 2016 12:54 pm 

    “You still have high power rates correct?”

    While hydro electric is about as cheap and renewable as it gets, much of the infrastructure was built out back between the 50s and the 80s, and is in dire need of upgrades and repairs. Those upgrades and repairs require a healthy functioning economy, and massive inputs from fossil fuels. I attended a BC Hydro seminar a few years back, in my former life. We were told back then that 50% of all electricity in BC will need to come from conservation by the mid 2020s. Much of the stuff that we use that electricity for, will be in the landfills by then.

  12. makati1 on Mon, 27th Jun 2016 7:13 pm 

    Hydroelectric depends on oil manufactured generators. And a long list of parts and fixes also hydrocarbon dependent. Life expectancy of those generators?

    Hoover Dam:

    “Without continual maintenance … the dam would stop producing power after the hydroelectric system and/or turbines stopped functioning. Speculation by several engineers who work at the dam believe that this could take anywhere from a few months to a few years.”

    Note the “continual maintenance i.e. replacement parts, lubes, etc. ALL oily products. So, when the parts stop flowing, the end is only “a few years” away at best.

  13. Apneaman on Mon, 27th Jun 2016 8:58 pm 

    Boat & Bystander – Tard & Tardier

    Hey fellas when is that solar powered mineral mining going to happen? Just set up some panels on the side of an isolated mountain somewhere and start hauling in the goodies huh? Geo thermal ore crushers? How about the heavy transport of the raw materials? Wind powered trains?

    Here is a video -Just the pad construction and erection for a wind turbine. Lets play a game called count all the fossil fueled machines it takes just to erect one turbine. Machines there is no non fossil fuel alternative for (spare us the pilot projects and drawing board promises – just real world)

    MidAmerican Energy Company – From the Ground Up: Building our energy future, one turbine at a time

  14. Kenz300 on Tue, 28th Jun 2016 11:17 am 

    Wind and solar do not need water to generate electricity like fossil fuel generators do………..

    Solar Added More New Capacity Than Coal, Natural Gas and Nuclear Combined

  15. PRacticalMaina on Wed, 29th Jun 2016 9:41 am 

    Apneaman, I usually agree with you but I can see electical powered mining, and construction equipment being far more efficient than diesel. Every time an excavator is lowering a loaded bucket it is wasting hydraulic energy. Ore crusher would be tough as that is just continual all out power. But the torque, instant power, and ability to recover mechanical losses from an electrical drive system make it competitive in this area. Solar powered trains would work great IMHO. I have found a source saying it would take 80 kwh per mile for a 3100 ton train. So the new Nikola hybrid tractor trailer battery pack could hall this train 8 miles before being recharged by overhead lines or car top solar.

  16. PRacticalMaina on Wed, 29th Jun 2016 9:51 am 

    That ironcompass link is kind of sad to read, there were a couple more significant electric lines in the US before the 70s, crazy when people have something right and then scrap it for short term profits.

  17. GregT on Wed, 29th Jun 2016 10:33 am 

    Those electric train lines were made possible with the burning of fossil fuels Practical. A product of modern industrialism. No fossil fuels, no electric trains.

    We had it right at converting food energy into muscle power. Solar energy, or more specifically, photosynthesis.

  18. PRacticalMaina on Wed, 29th Jun 2016 10:38 am 

    GregT, true, but for that size train, 80kwh per mile is not bad, think of how large of a solar array a quarter mile long train could hold. Electric offers lower maintenance as well, very important considering the consumable parts are currently derived from ff.

  19. PRacticalMaina on Wed, 29th Jun 2016 10:40 am 

    You could have a car that is just solid lithium ion, switch it out every 100 miles or so when it is depleted at a solar recharge station, a train is the one vehicle that switching out massive batterys would be practical on.

  20. Kenz300 on Wed, 29th Jun 2016 11:06 am 

    Battery powered buses are growing in use around the world…………


    Electric cars, trucks, bicycles and mass transit are the future…..fossil fuel ICE cars are the past…………..

    Think teen agers vs your grand father…………………. cell phones vs land lines…….

    NO EMISSIONS……..climate change is real………

    Save money……no stopping at gas stations… oil changes……..less overall maintenance……

  21. GregT on Wed, 29th Jun 2016 11:28 am 


    You are talking about a transportation solution that worked for a small percentage of a much smaller population, during a period where overall energy consumption was rapidly increasing.

    While I do agree that building out alternate infrastructure could soften the blow of population overshoot, that infrastructure would be transitional. Not practical, and not a permanent solution.

    Too little, too late.

  22. Bystander on Wed, 29th Jun 2016 11:59 am 

    “Wind powered trains?”

    Is in 2016 already more than 50% realized.

  23. Bystander on Wed, 29th Jun 2016 12:08 pm 

    “Lets play a game called count all the fossil fueled machines it takes just to erect one turbine. Machines there is no non fossil fuel alternative for (spare us the pilot projects and drawing board promises – just real world)”

    Gemini will be completed next year and provide the three northern-most Dutch provinces with electricity:

    Unril 2023 the rest of the Netherlands will be supplied with windenergy from the Northsea.

    Be honest apey: you would hate to see this realized, now don’t you?

  24. Bystander on Wed, 29th Jun 2016 12:22 pm 

    The most important investment, namely the creation of the Aeolus has already been made:

    With this single ship Holland can set up a completely new energy infrastructure by repeatatively ramming thousands of monopiles into the seafloor. By 2023 the job will be done.


    NorNed subsea cable already exists and is wildly succesful in pumping and retrieving electricity to/from Norway. More of these cables are planned.

  25. Bystander on Wed, 29th Jun 2016 12:27 pm 

    NorNed cable for pumped hydro storage in Norway with renewable energy generated in the Netherlands:

  26. Bystander on Wed, 29th Jun 2016 12:34 pm 

    Norway wants to be Europe’s battery pack:

    Everything is in place for NW-Europe to be the first to completely go renewable before fossil runs out.

  27. JuanP on Wed, 29th Jun 2016 4:32 pm 

    Practical “crazy when people have something right and then scrap it for short term profits.” Reminds me of my country, Uruguay. A century ago we had an amazing rail network built by the Brits. When I was a kid the capital, Montevideo, had a great network of electric trolleys that would take you anywhere in the city. Both things are gone now. We will never have the time or money to build them again, unfortunately.

  28. makati1 on Wed, 29th Jun 2016 6:39 pm 

    Bystander, if the EU and NATO does not break up soon, there will be no Europe, no Netherlands, just radioactive glass puddles where cities used to be. Do you really think you can keep poking the bear and not get mauled? I don’t.

    But keep dreaming of that “renewable” future and ignore reality. It feels good, doesn’t it? LOL

  29. makati1 on Wed, 29th Jun 2016 7:35 pm 

    All who think I am exaggerating about nuclear war might consider:

    “NATO is the anti-Russia military club; it’s designed to conquer Russia, certainly not to defend one NATO member against another. When a nation joins NATO, they’re already slaves of the U.S. government. Like Obama repeatedly says, “The United States is and remains the one indispensable nation.” The government in any nation that joins or stays in NATO, knows that their nation is “dispensable,” and they accept this: they have to, in order to be a part of NATO, which the U.S. controls. So: Obama could publicly tell this to America’s military, and no one would even blink at it; America’s exceptionalism is accepted as being not only real, but good.)

    And, since what the Washington Post’s story was alleging there, has been called false by the person who did the hacking, the Post’s implication that Russia committed an act which NATO’s new policy labels as an act of war against the United States, isn’t only unfounded and likely false; it’s also mentally preparing the American public to go along marching toward nuclear oblivion, on that dubious basis — like America had marched into war against Iraq in 2003, on the basis of lies from the government and its stenographic press, but an invasion of Russia would be much worse than George W. Bush’s invasions were.”

    Have you factored those flashy mushroom clouds into your preps? If not, you should. We are getting closer every day. If we managed to dodge WW3, you will still be ahead of the game with your preps.

  30. GregT on Wed, 29th Jun 2016 8:30 pm 

    “Gemini will be completed next year and provide the three northern-most Dutch provinces with electricity”

    Congrats to Norway. A little behind the times however. Here in BC we’ve had hydro electric for at least the last 60 years.

    No bearing what-so-ever on a liquid fuels crisis, however. The two are not the same thing.

  31. Bystander on Thu, 30th Jun 2016 1:18 am 


    An all-destructive nuclear war is a distinct possibility, but not a neccessity. We all lived for 70 years under that threat… and us non-japanese got away with it, so far.

    So we need to prepare for the eventuality that the nuclear doomsday machine will not go off after all. Hence my links. It is heartening that you don’t attack these projects on their technical merits. Would be difficult anyway.

  32. Bystander on Thu, 30th Jun 2016 1:35 am 


    You are missing the point, everywhere in the developed world most hydro potential has been long exhausted. Hydro is one of the most easiest and cheapest forms of electricity.

    Annual electricity consumption per capita in kwh

    1. Iceland…….5873
    2. Norway……2603
    3. Canada……1871
    22. Germany….861

    The world’s top three electricity consumers are spearsely populated mountaineous countries wit a lot of hydro. I am sure that Norway realized that potential a long time ago, probably even more than 60 years ago.

    The point is that Norway has offered Europe to function as a hydro storage facility, under the motto: “you Europe, send us your excess renewable energy, typically generated by wind at night or solar during very sunny days, so we can use that energy to pump water high into mountain reservoirs. And we will release it when you need that electricity”.

  33. Apneaman on Thu, 30th Jun 2016 2:09 am 

    4 States Struggling to Manage Radioactive Fracking Waste

  34. makati1 on Thu, 30th Jun 2016 3:43 am 

    Bystander, the past is no proof of the future. Perhaps you do not see the ‘need’ for the empire to create a war with Russia. The Empire is dying and Russia holds the keys (resources) to keep it alive a while linger. Russia also has the power to block the Empire’s plans for the world. Both are red bulls-eyes for the American elite. The generals who oppose them have been deleted from US service. All you have left are generals like Breedlove who are power hungry and insane.

    That you believe a nuclear war cannot happen because there was a mutual agreement for most of those 70 years is a mistake. That mutual destruction capability is not believed by the current DC inhabitants. From all I have read in the last few years, they believe that they can win a nuclear war. Insanity is the usual cause for wars.

    Besides, everyone who has been foolish enough to attack Russia since before Napoleon, has lost. And will lose in the future. Their weapons systems work and they are way ahead of the empire in that area. Even the American military acknowledges that fact.

    So, believe what you want. Me, I’m staying as far from nuke targets as I can get, not that that will do more than prolong my life while we all die of radiation poisoning from the fallout and a likely nuclear winter. “Those who live by the sword (America) die by the sword (America).” So be it.

  35. Bystander on Thu, 30th Jun 2016 6:24 am 

    Makati, if you reread my post you’ll see I’ll admit that nuclear war is a “distinct possibility”, but not completely inevitable. I know that Washington is looking for war, but they need an excuse and Europa is dragging its feet. Britain set out to destroy Germany from 1891 but had to wait 23 years for the desired occasion to arrive (Sarajevo). This could happen to the US as well. And maybe they won’t get that much time.

    That the real elite is in absolute panic mode about the rise of populism, here an article by a CFR chappy by the name of Traub (hint, he is not German):

    He wants the elites (which includes him) to rise up against the electorate, or “ignorant masses” in his eyes.

    Poor Traub, he is with back against the wall. His folks lost the USSR gradually between 1938 and 1953. They are about to lose the US.

  36. PracticalMaina on Thu, 30th Jun 2016 9:23 am 

    Bystander, hydropower is under tapped in my area. Every old dying mill city in my state was built strategically on a powerful river, next to a waterfall, many of these old mills are simply decaying relics. There are dozens of large dams not producing power in my state, and the potential for thousands of good micro hydro set ups is there.

    Anyone see where now they are saying the attackers in Istanbul were all from Soviet Nations, at least they weren’t Russian.
    Several years ago I was playing a call of duty video game where there was a secret level which you would go into an airport and commit a false flag shooting of civilians, pretending to be Chechen or something. It is crazy how fiction can precede reality.

  37. Bystander on Thu, 30th Jun 2016 9:35 am 

    They were all muslims from former Soviet territory. Their aim probably was to discourage western tourists to visit Istanbul/Turkey and turn Turkey into a Sunni fundamentalist state.

  38. JuanP on Thu, 30th Jun 2016 10:09 am 

    Bystander, in Tom Clancy’s “Debt of Honor” a Boeing 747 is flown into the US Capitol killing the US President and other assholes. I read that book before the 911 false flag attacks. Talk about deja vu!

  39. JuanP on Thu, 30th Jun 2016 10:16 am 

    Bystander, In John J. Nance’s “Blackout” novel, which I read in 2000 before the 911 false flag attack a scenario is described in which terrorists fly Boeing 767s into the WTC. Both books are fun to read!

  40. JuanP on Thu, 30th Jun 2016 10:33 am 

    Mak, I completely agree with yo regarding the use of nuclear weapons and the high likelihood of an all out nuclear war in the future. I think there is an almost total certainty that it will happen. People who deny this are, IMO, denialists, but I don’t blame them. It is a very hard fact to accept, particularly for Americans in my experience. Americans find it extremely hard to accept that the USA can be completely destroyed in less than one hour and that this could happen any day.

    For me a future nuclear war is like Global Warming, Climate Change, overpopulation, or Peak Oil. All these things are equally real and likely to me. I know we disagree on overpopulation.

  41. JuanP on Thu, 30th Jun 2016 10:38 am 

    There are more than 10,000 nuclear warheads in the world. We all know what brutal, violent, agressive, selfish beasts humans are. Anyone who thinks we will never use those weapons is tripping. Just watch the recent US agressions against Russia. The US government is begging to get nuked. Thank the gods for President Putin! A nuclear war is a matter of when not if, as far as I am concerned. Truth is a biatch!

  42. PracticalMaina on Thu, 30th Jun 2016 11:13 am 

    Who the hell would visit Turkey? All they have to do to keep me out of their is show Ergodens religious extremist loving face. A solid ally of the US, like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Israel, notice all of the nuclear capable-think religion should be in politics nations we keep close to us, what a wonderful idea.
    JuanP, I think the next threat will be from China, when they no longer need our consumerism, Putin, Hillary and Trump are all just there to make a buck, and they understand the same is true for their counterpart. Plus if you are gonna get red blooded bible thumping war lovers behind a conflict, its much easier if they aren’t fellow pale Christians.

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