Water Resources Engineering (WRE) connects engineering hydrology and hydraulics with global, economic, environmental, and societal issues. Our student Barcley Hayward makes this connection here…
The news article, “Clean Energy Could Stress Global Water Resource” written by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), was published on Science News Daily on March 4, 2016. The news relates to the WRE domain of hydrology and the specific issue of water consumption by the energy sector. In summary, this news article discusses the potential drawbacks of increasing the world’s renewable energy to reduce global climate change. In a 2012 Global energy assessment conducted by the IIASA, a goal was set to limit global climate change to 2 degrees Celsius over the next century. In order to meet this goal, 41 different “transition pathways” were proposed. Depending on the pathway, limiting global climate change could immensely affect the world’s water supply with unsustainable usage. It is likely that this unsustainable consumption by the energy sector would lead to allocation issues among other sectors including domestic use and agriculture. The extreme consumption of water by the energy sector is a result of the liquid cooling process. Not only is consumption an issue, but thermal pollution (Figure 1) from the cooling processes could have detrimental effects on the environment as well (IIASA, 2016). Based on my engineering education, it seems that this article presents a very valid argument. Being that the energy industry consumes roughly 27 percent of water in the U.S. it would make sense that an overall increase in energy systems would lead to water supply issues (Mielke, 2010). It is also very apparent that increased thermal pollution would have severe impacts on the natural environment since waste heat typically depletes dissolved oxygen content within waters and also raises the metabolic rate of aquatic species leading them to require more nutrients (Hogan, 2010). Overall, it seems that working to solve the issue of global climate change will eventually lead to issues with water as a resource. One issue with this article is that it did not provide examples of the 41 transition pathways. It seems that out of the 41 options, some would be much more detrimental to the water supply than others and it would have been interesting to compare the different scenarios.
In a broader sense, this WRE issue ties directly to environmental sustainability. There seems to be 2 options, reduce global warming or save the water supply. By doing one, the other is affected. Reducing climate change leads to water depletion and conserving water leads to more climate change. Global climate change is obviously a prevalent issue in today’s world. Addressing climate change in general is something that needs to happen; however, the ways in which humans choose to deal with this problem need to be thoroughly evaluated before anything is implicated. It seems intuitive that in order to stop climate change we should just reduce fossil fuel consumption and focus on renewable energy. It is counterintuitive that expanding renewable energy would cause other sustainability issues around the globe. Energy and water are tied very closely to each other (Mielke, 2010). The forever changing relationship between the 2 makes it very difficult to make a move toward sustainability since there would likely be a tradeoff on the opposing end. The general consensus is that efficiency is key (IIASA, 2016). By reducing the amount of energy needed, the amount of power plants could be reduced which would, in turn, reduce water consumption and climate change at the same time. For this reason, the focus for sustainability should be placed on efficiency and making human processes less energy intensive. Humans are the reason for nearly all environmental issues, reducing energy usage would obviously be a good step in the right direction.
Figure 1: A remotely sensed image showing the effects of thermal pollution
Hogan, C M. “Thermal Pollution.” The Encyclopedia of Earth. N.p., Aug. 2010. Web. 28 Apr. 2016. <http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/156599/>.
International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. “Clean energy could stress global water resources.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 March 2016. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/03/160304092012.htm>.
Mielke, Eric. “Water Consumption of Energy Resource Extraction, Processing, and Conversion.” Belfer Center. Harvard University, Oct. 2010. Web. 28 Apr. 2016. <http://belfercenter.hks.harvard.edu/publication/20479/water_consumption_of_energy_resource_extraction_processing_and_conversion.html>.