Dec 30, 2012

Demand for Water Growing Faster Than Energy Demand | Forget Peak Oil, Peak Water may already be here

To borrow a theme from former Indianapolis Colts Coach Jim Mora's "Playoff?" rant made famous through thousands of replays on ESPN: "Peak oil? Peak oil? You kidding me? Peak oil?  We're just trying to get some water here."

The International Energy Agency "buried the lead," as we old journalists say, earlier this year when it published its World Energy Outlook 2012. It listed the torrential growth in demand for water in the production of energy as only the third major point in its report.

Yet if IEA's forecast, and the forecasts of those few researchers who have focused on the subject to date, are right, Earth may already have reached "Peak Water" (though no one has dared use that term). Human, agricultural and industrial demand for water currently exceeds our extraction capacity. And while it's far from clear how we can extract much more water each day from the Earth than we do now, demand for water continues to grow rapidly as the earth's population swells and as big portions of the undeveloped and underdeveloped parts of the globe rush into industrialization.

In fact, water demand is growing faster than the demand for all types of energy combined. And we all know how fast energy demand is growing.

Ironically, energy production happens to be a particularly "thirsty" activity. The IEA estimated in its 2012 Outlook that humans withdrew 583 BILLION cubic meters of water from the earth in 2010 for use in energy production. Water is used in all sorts of ways to produce energy: in simple hydroelectric power generating dams; in shale oil and gas fracking fluids; on drilling platforms; as a coolant in nuclear-, oil- and coal-fired electricity generation stations; and, increasingly, in the cultivation of the plants and other biofuel feedstocks. Of that amount just 11.3%, or 66 billion cubic meters of water, were returned immediately to their source. The rest either were contaminated (and rendered unfit for re-use or consumption) or evaporated as steam. (In theory evaporated water returns for use after cycling through the atmosphere, turning into rain, and draining into streams or aquifers, but the process can take a very long time, creating the possibility of localized droughts and a general reduction in available ground water at any given point in time).

More sobering is the IEA's projection that future demand for water for use in energy production will increase by 85% by 2035.

So, to meet its current and future water needs the energy industry has three options:

  1. Steal water from human consumption.
  2. Find some cost-effective and practical way to use salty seawater.
  3. Find ways to reduce the amount of water needed in the various energy production processes.

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