Newsletter XVIII - JRC study on the challenges of increasingly scarce water resources for EU energy and water policies

A recently published study by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) analyses the strong inter-dependency between the energy and water systems, and proposes actions for addressing problems posed by increasingly scarce water resources in EU energy and water policies.

 Thermal power stations are vulnerable to global warming as they need large quantities of cooling water to function. In July 2019, for example, several nuclear power plants were temporarily closed in various parts of Europe due to high water temperatures. Hydropower output and stocks were also affected in France, Spain, the Balkans and Scandinavia. With energy demand predicted to increase, scientists see the rising temperatures as a threat to the proper functioning of our energy and water systems.

 As highlighted by the JRC’s Davide Magagna, rising temperatures from a warming climate have an impact on the energy and water systems. The energy industry depends heavily on the availability of water, but also the water sector depends on energy to collect, pump, treat and desalinate water.

 In the JRC study, the strong inter-dependency between the energy and water systems is seen as a “critical uncertainty” that may become an issue in terms of achieving the EU’s ambitious decarbonisation goals for 2050, if the proposed solutions rely on water-intensive energy technologies.

 It is expected that by 2050, overall water demand by the energy sector will decrease, but the sector will still need a lot of water to function. Climate change will negatively impact water availability and water scarcity may lead to more power generation problems in several EU regions.

 As pointed out by the JRC’s Giovanni Bidoglio, climate models suggest that disruptions such as those in summer 2018 will become more common and harsher. Water scarcity will be felt across Europe, affecting at least 90 million Europeans, not only in the Mediterranean regions, but also in other countries like Poland, Czech Republic and Germany. More floods and droughts, higher water temperatures and changes in the seasonal patterns of river flows will impact both the cooling of power plants and hydropower generation.

 The JRC report presents some technology options that could help reduce the water needs of the energy system. Increasing the shift from coal and nuclear to renewable energies is one. Although decarbonisation of the energy system is expected to significantly reduce water use by 2050, coal and nuclear power plants would still account for 50% of projected water use in 2050.

 The report also recommends the use of air-based and advanced cooling systems, as well as finding proper trade-offs between open- and closed-loop cooling systems (the latter withdraw less but consume more). Further options include the use of waste heat for heating, and the replacement of water by other means in the oil and gas industry. Smart meters can help optimise power plant and water management, reduce waste and leaks, and improve data collection.

 Currently, the use and management of water and energy are addressed separately both at the level of EU policy and individual EU member countries. The JRC study calls for integrated water-energy policies, and provides several policy recommendations on how to boost the use of low-carbon energy sources while keeping water resources sustainable.

 The study, which is described in a JRC Science for Policy Report (see web-link below), was carried out under the JRC’s Water-Energy-Food-Ecosystem (WEFE) Nexus project, which analyses inter-dependencies and interactions between the water, energy, agriculture, and environment sectors.

 This news item is based on an article published in the JRC Newsletter on 12 August 2019 (see web-link below).

Niall McCormick
European Commission, Joint Research Centre (JRC)

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