Water Experts Warn There is Not Enough H2O for Low-Carbon Energy

Water shortages could mean trouble in our race to find enough clean energy to fuel the planet.

By Tasha Eichenseher in Stockholm, Sweden

This post is part of a special news series on global water issues.

Over the next 20 to 30 years, we will see population growth and development lead to even greater water scarcity, according to experts speaking at World Water Week in Stockholm.

veags.jpgMeeting the energy, food, and domestic water needs of more than 8 billion people in 2030 is going to require more freshwater than we currently have, according to Giulio Boccaletti of McKinsey and Company in the U.K. Boccaletti spoke during a panel Tuesday about the consulting firm’s 2009 global water analysis.

Globally the energy and industrial sectors use approximately 211 trillion gallons (800 billion cubic meters) of freshwater annually, compared to municipal and domestic use together at 159 trillion gallons (600 billion cubic meters), and agriculture use at 819 trillion gallons (3,100 cubic meters), according to McKinsey.

Photograph of Las Vegas by Jodi Cobb.

By 2030 global industrial and energy needs are expected to reach 396 trillion gallons (1,500 billion cubic meters). Combine that with an anticipated 238 trillion gallons (900 billion cubic meters) for city and home use, and 1.1 quadrillion gallons (4,500 cubic meters) for agriculture and water needs in just 20 years will be at least 1.8 quadrillion gallons (6,900 billion cubic meters).

Current capacity: Just over 1.1 quadrillion gallons (4,200 billion cubic meters), according to McKinsey.

The solutions to scarcity discussed throughout the week stressed water reuse, demand management, and new, more efficient, technologies in the water, energy, and agricultural sectors.

We’ve covered the water costs of food in previous posts, but have, to some degree, neglected energy.

(The exception: “Clean Energy the Solution to Western U.S. Water Woes.”)


Water shortages could mean trouble for our race to find enough clean energy to fuel the planet.

The focus of energy discussions over the last five to seven years has been on low-carbon technologies, including carbon capture and storage (CCS), but many of these are more water-intensive than existing forms of extraction and production, Jan Dell, vice president of the energy and chemicals division of consulting firm CH2M Hill said during a session this week on balancing water and carbon in sustainable energy production.

According to Dell, adding CCS increases the water footprint of some energy facilities by up to 90 percent.

“Have we forgotten about water in the race for low-carbon?” Dell asked.

In the U.S., the Department of Energy (DOE) has been charged with charting an energy-water roadmap. The first part of their report, mandated by Congress in the 2005 Energy Security Act, outlined our current state of energy demand and supply. The second report, intended to analyze the water needs required to meet our energy demands, has been held up at DOE for the last four years, according to an investigation published this week by the news organization Circle of Blue.

In 1995, American thermoelectric plants alone consumed 3.3. billion gallons of water a day, primarily for cooling evaporative processes, according to the first installment of the DOE report.

The report goes on to say that if new power plants don’t employ dry cooling technologies, they could consume up to 7.3 billion gallons of water a day by 2030.

Electric solar isn’t much better, according to DOE. And increased demand for new transportation fuels presents its own dilemmas.

A new analysis of biofuels for transportation by the Water Footprint Network, shows that the water demand for these crops is expected to increase tenfold, from 24 trillion gallons of water (90 billion cubic meters) a year to 256 trillion gallons (970 billion cubic meters) a year in 2030.

“The U.S. should carefully consider energy and water development and management so that each resource is used according to its full value,” recommends DOE.

The opposite side of the same coin is improving efficiency in water treatment and increasing water reuse. Stay tuned as we cover innovation on these fronts in National Geographic News.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn