Peak water limiting energy production
Peak water limiting energy productionEconomic Energy
One of the most controversial subjects in the energy world is that of “peak oil”; the idea that oil production has peaked and will keep declining until we have used the last of the world’s oil resources. I will be taking a more detailed look at the peak oil issue in a future column but today I am focusing on a similar but less publicised issue: peak water.
As a non-renewable resource, it takes millions of years for organic material to turn into oil. So it is a reasonable assumption to make that once we burn the oil we currently have, there won’t be any more for a long time. Water, on the other hand, is recycled through the ecosystem over a much shorter time period. Yet there is considerable evidence that the world is becoming short of water, at least in certain areas.
Just as there are oil-rich countries and oil-poor countries, parts of the world are rich in water resources (Brazil, Russia, Canada), while other areas are lacking in water, most notably China and India but also some developed countries such as Australia. However, unlike with the oil sector, there is no significant trade in bulk water from countries with excess water to countries who lack it. In fact, here in Canada there has been serious opposition to any bulk water exports; an interesting contrast to how eager Canadians are to export our oil.
This lack of water is having serious impacts on the economies of the countries affected. Water is of course used for the basic necessities of life such as drinking and personal hygiene, and very poor countries, (both in water resource and income) suffer in these areas. However, for wealthier countries, a lack of water can seriously hurt the economy, largely through its impact on power generation.
Water is a basic input to most sources of power generation because it is used as a coolant. Nuclear, coal, and gas power stations all require massive amounts of bulk water. What happens when the water is not there? In 2003, a lot of European nuclear plants had to be turned off due to a heat wave induced drought. This significantly impacted industrial production. The same thing happened last year on the American east coast and is expected to occur more frequently in the future.
Some countries have realised that water scarcity is becoming a real issue and are doing something about it. China and Saudi Arabia are probably the best examples. Most people are surprised to hear that China is the world’s leader in wind energy capacity. This is surprising because of China’s relatively poor environmental record. However, wind is one of the few power generation resources that requires almost no water to operate. This is why China is installing most of its wind farms in the province of Inner Mongolia where not only is it windy, but it is also the driest part of China. China’s build out of wind is not so surprising in light of its its water scarcity.
Saudi Arabia is deploying vast amounts of solar stations for similar reasons. Saudi Arabia does not have much water and what water resources it does have are dwindling. To counter this, Saudi Arabia is building large desalination plants to extract usable water from the ocean. Desalination plants require lots of energy and despite its oil riches, Saudi Arabia is powering these plants with solar power.
B.C. is rich in water resources even by Canadian standards. However, there are lots of existing and future demands on our water supply. Our power generation system is almost completely powered by hydropower. New and existing mines need water largely taken from nearby lakes. Natural gas fracking controversially uses large amounts of water too. So although we in BC have plenty of fresh water now and “peak water” is not an issue for us, the world provides some useful example of how industrial development might deplete our water resources in the future.