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:
- Steal water from human consumption.
- Find some cost-effective and practical way to use salty seawater.
- Find ways to reduce the amount of water needed in the various energy production processes.
Option 1 isn’t really an option. Earth’s population is growing rapidly. And all those extra people will need more, not less water for consumption and hygiene purposes, and for the production of all sorts of other goods and services.
As for Option 2, there’s also little chance that seawater will be the answer. Desalinating sea water not only is expensive, it requires a lot of energy, negating the value of using sea water to produce energy. And sea water is of no use in cultivating jatropha, corn and other plants used as biofuel feedstocks. Work on using sea algae as a biofuel feedstock is progressing, but the practical and cost problems of turning huge portions of open ocean water into algae farms large enough to produce meaningful amounts of biofuel are daunting.
So that leaves Option 3. And reducing energy producers’ demand for water won’t be easy.
Oil and gas producers rightly are focused on finding new ways to extract harder-to-get-at minerals. The alternative energy sector isn’t living up to its hype, largely because the hype has been so, well, hyperbolic that a fledgling industry still experimenting with technologies, delivery systems and business models, and struggling to attract investors willing to wait a long time for a payback would disappoint.
And there’s little wiggle room in the mathematical and physics calculations that determine how much water is needed to cool steam generators and reactors. So it will require monumental scientific and engineering efforts, billions of dollars of capital investment that likely won’t generate significant returns in the short- or even mid-terms, plus clear-eyed and determined leadership to reduce the energy industry’s relative demand for water.
But, as a practical matter the various branches of the energy industry must find ways to do that. If they don’t, Peak Water may turn out to be a bigger threat than Peak Oil.
Dan Reed is a communications consultant and former senior reporter and Texas bureau chief for USA Today and senior reporter/financial reporter for the Fort Worth Start-Telegram who has written on a variety of critical issues in several industries.
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