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Humanity May Face Choice By 2040: Conventional Energy or Drinking Water

A set of studies based on three years of research concludes that by 2040, the need for drinking water and water for use in energy production will create dire shortages.

Conventional electricity generation is the largest source of water use in most countries. Water is used to cool power plants to keep them functional. Most power utilities don’t even record the amount of water they use.

“It’s a huge problem that the electricity sector do not even realize how much water they actually consume,” says Professor Benjamin Sovacool of Denmark’s Aarhus University, one of the institutions involved in the research. “And together with the fact that we do not have unlimited water resources, it could lead to a serious crisis if nobody acts on it soon.”

The research, which included projections of the availability of water and the growth of the world’s population, found that by 2020, between 30 percent and 40 percent of the planet will no longer have direct access to clean drinking water. The problem could be made even worse if climate change accelerates, creating more heat and causing more water evaporation.

That means humankind must decide how water is used, Sovacool says. “Do we want to spend it on keeping the power plants going or as drinking water? We don’t have enough water to do both,” he says.

The researchers, also from the Vermont Law School and CNA Corporation in the US, a non-profit research institute in Arlington, Va., focused their studies on specific utilities and other energy suppliers in four countries: China, France, India and the United States.

Related Article: Water Wars: The Next Clash between India and China

First, they identified each country’s energy needs, then factored in projections of water availability in each country and its population level as far as 2040. In all four cases, they discovered, there will not be enough water by then both to drink and to use at electricity-generating plants.

So how to prevent this conflict? The studies agreed on starting with the simplest solution: Alternative sources of electricity that don’t require massive amounts of water.

The recommendations are improving energy efficiency, conducting more research on alternative cooling mechanisms, logging water use at power plants, making massive investments in solar and wind energy, and abandoning fossil fuel facilities in all areas susceptible to water shortages.


This last proposal may be the most difficult to implement because parched areas now include half of Earth. But Sovacool says it would be worth the investment.

“If we keep doing business as usual, we are facing an insurmountable water shortage – even if water was free, because it’s not a matter of the price,” he says. “There will be no water by 2040 if we keep doing what we’re doing today. There’s no time to waste. We need to act now.”

By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com

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  • pippo on August 04 2014 said:
    @Alexa "The worst offender is however NUCLEAR"

    I guess you are antinuclear- no prize - but you will be more convincing if you think the physics through before.

    Once you have a heat source we will consider of similar temperature, Nuclear or oil or coal, the yield of the cooling tower and turbines will be more or less the same. So no, Nuclear energy is not a bigger - nor a lesser offender- than the other technologies in matter of water use.

    And if you follow the article, the point you should refute is the CO2 emissions. It is argued that the water scarcity is reinforced by the global warming,and therefore the fossil sources are the worst.
  • Mickey Dotson on August 04 2014 said:
    The water used to cool the generating plants is not consumed. It is merely heated it can be recycled very easily.
  • Paul Christenson on August 03 2014 said:
    I am sorry to say, but the solution to this and a multitude of other resource problems are easily alleviated by the necessary and sufficient culling of the herd. It has become apparent that this will happen naturally in due time.
  • Green Roots on August 02 2014 said:
    There is plenty of sea water if price is not an option.
    we do know how to convert
    Ck. with the US Navy & see that they provide enough to stay at sea as long as needed.
  • phil J on August 02 2014 said:
    I think that the reason the article author suggests abandoning fossil fuel power plants are two fold: 1) Acid rain, 2) created heat that causing the earth to heat which leads to more water evaporation. In addition, there currently are more on line fossil fuel power plants, than nuclear power plants, in the world. I like the idea of using non-potable water to cool nuclear plants, though.

    My suggestion is to develop desalination water plants creating more potable water; such plants could be partially fueled by either solar power, wave motion and wind turbine electricity generation.

    Also, do not forget the amount of potable water pumped from the ground available for use.

    Thank you for considering my above ideas.

    Phil J
  • alexa on August 01 2014 said:
    WHY do you propose to abandon fossil fuel facilities but not mention abandon nuclear facilities.
    Surely nuclear utilizes greater water, and is much
    more harmful, there is currently no way to dispose
    of any nuclear waste, the problem only grows ?

    " So how to prevent this conflict? "

    A. - Do not use potable water to cool electric plants.
    Use a different water source. Like waste water.

    B. Do not use water for lawns, golf courses, fountains, etc.. . Particularly in desert regions like CA or CO or AZ. Use native vegetation, or desert scape.

    Point being, there are hundreds of ways to alleviate the issue.
    The worst offender is however NUCLEAR
    which you fail to mention.

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