Thirsty Energy: A five-year journey to address water-energy nexus challenges

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About 5 years ago we embarked on a global initiative titled “Thirsty Energy” to respond to water-energy nexus challenges around the world. The initiative, a joint effort of the Water and the Energy Global Practices at the World Bank, has finally come to an end. We wanted to reflect on the lessons learnt along the way, as our team has developed a fantastic set of material and methodologies to move the needle forward on this issue. We hope that the global community takes advantage of this to ignite change.

Activities were implemented at two levels: At the global level, we focused on developing a strong communications strategy, by advocating in international conferences and publishing materials as we needed to raise awareness of the water-energy challenges, and to promote a dialogue between government, international organizations, and the private sector.  At the country level, we tailored approaches depending on the available resources, modeling experi­ence, and institutional and political realities to create water-smart energy planning tools to promote a more sustainable development of energy resources. The initiative carried 3 case studies in South Africa, China, and Morocco. The case studies have been documented and shared, so countries facing similar challenges can address the nexus issues in a more systematic way. The studies summarize the analysis and demonstrate the process and type of tools that can be employed to examine the nexus and the insights that can be gained from water-smart energy planning.
 
What have we learned?     

The water-energy nexus is context specific, and solutions can’t be generalized.  The nexus is context/regional specific, with variations in water resources due to geography, population, economic growth, demand, energy mix, and climate change. These factors can combine to create ‘hot-spots’ where the water-energy nexus is more challenging than elsewhere. It is therefore important to understand the regional challenges and devise context specific solutions to address the nexus in these critical hot-spots.
 
Sustainable energy planning needs to take into account water use and needs. Our results show that accounting for the regional vari­ability of water supply and the associated costs of water supply infrastructure for energy needs can significantly impact energy planning, especially in a water-scarce country like South Africa. The work highlights the importance of the spatial component of energy and water resources—particularly in countries where water availability varies widely from region to region—and its potential impacts on the overall cost of differ­ent energy technologies. The work also show that specific energy sector policies can have significant implications for new investment in water supply infrastructure and, in some cases, can strand water supply investments (and vice versa). However, if decision makers plan in a more integrated manner they can ensure the robustness of water supply for energy and for other water users, thus maximizing the value of both energy and water infrastructure investments.
 
Win-win solutions are possible. Policies being pursued to mitigate climate change impacts could reduce both CO2 emissions and water use by the energy sector—with only modest increase in energy system cost. Investing now in renewables such as solar PV and wind that require little or no water to generate electricity can help to not only mitigate but also help adapt to climate change in the future.
 
A nexus approach is needed to achieve several SDGs. Water availability is a necessary condition for reaching universal energy access and meeting the future energy needs both in developing and developed countries, as almost all energy generation processes require water. The water sector can benefit from universal energy access by improving access to reliable, affordable, and safe water supplies. However, if energy resources are developed without taking into account water needs and or monitoring pollution, energy access can have a negative impact on water resources. Water scarcity can threaten the long-term viability of energy projects, and conversely, energy processes can impact water resources and limit the water available for other users. Therefore, understanding water–energy interrelationship is critical to building more resilient and sustainable energy systems.
 
Infrastructure investments made today are critical. Choices and decisions about which energy extraction facilities to develop and where, which power plants to build, which to retire, and which energy or cooling technologies to deploy and develop matter. Energy infrastructure is designed to last for decades and thus, decisions should be made taking future water availability into account, including climate change impacts and increasing future competing water demands across sectors. Energy projects need to assess if their water supply is sustainable now and into the future. and it is imperative to take into account and anticipate any future tradeoffs across different water users.
 
Although the initiative is coming to an end, nexus challenges are still present, as shown in this recent article by WRI. We hope to continue to provide support to countries and to foster initiatives that encourage cross-sectoral collaboration. After all, decisions in one sector can have unintended consequences in another, and integrated solutions are crucial to ensure a more sustainable future for all.

Thirsty Energy material:

All this material and other can be found in the Initiative’s website: http://www.worldbank.org/thirstyenergy
 

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