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Counting Every Drop: The Water-Energy Nexus

The UK has a reputation for being inundated with drizzle, downpours, and everything in-between; and for cherishing rare interludes of sunny, hot weather, like those we’ve experienced recently. The record-breaking rainfall of Winter 2013/14, the wettest for England and Wales in nearly 250 years, does nothing to dispel the impression of being a “wet country”. However, such a reputation can make water shortages seem a distant concern. When hosepipe bans are on the agenda, there can be confusion amongst the public as to how a nation with substantial rainfall can find itself in this predicament. In reality, the country is drier than people might expect. London is considered drier than Istanbul and Dallas; and even receives half as much rain as Sydney.

The rainfall we receive is responsible for replenishing rivers and aquifers, where it can be:

  • abstracted (i.e. withdrawn) by the water companies for treatment;
  • abstracted by other businesses;
  • or left to protect the environment.

In England and Wales, licences are required when these abstractions exceed 20,000 litres per day. However, according to Defra, “many catchments have no spare water that can be allocated for further abstraction due to a need to protect the environment”. In some cases, the volumes being withdrawn are already causing damage. A limited ability to issue new abstraction licences could threaten business start-ups and expansion in certain locations. The problem could become even more severe in the future, if climate change deceases water availability (or changes its spatial or temporal distributions); and if population growth increases demand for water.

These problems with capacity and environmental damage could be partly attributed to the licencing system. Many of the licences have been issued for volumes far greater than business requirement, leaving water “unused” on licences, and reducing the ability to issue new licences. At the other extreme, environmental damage is occurring because licences were often issued for specific volumes, irrespective of availability at a given time. In other words, during a drought, water levels may be low, but many abstraction licences will still permit the licence holders to abstract their full allowance.

A consultation on reform to the abstraction system ran earlier this year. One proposal was to offer ‘shares’ of the available water supply, rather than fixed volumes. However, for some industries, a variable supply of water may be unsuitable. Furthermore, even if reform makes the licences more responsive to the actual water availability, companies could still use water inefficiently, if the licence costs are unsubstantial, and their ‘share’ exceeds requirement.

Bearing the problems and potential reform in mind, the energy sector becomes a very important area for research. The energy sector is responsible for over half of the licenced water abstractions in England and Wales, and limiting the sectors’ access to water, either through reform or in the event of drought, could have consequences for electricity generation. The energy sector could be described as “dependent” on water, but with the exception of hydroelectric power, there’s potential to change the sectors’ water footprint. For example, cooling towers at power stations can involve large water withdrawals, but there are “dry” cooling technologies available.

The energy sector is more than just electricity generation. Producing or extracting fuels also have their own water demands. Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is receiving extensive amounts of public, media and government attention at the moment, and involves water and chemicals being pumped into drilled wells at high pressure. There have been attempts to quantify the water demands, and to identify potential risks to the quality of water stored underground. Understanding possible future pressures on the water resource, like these, are important, especially given the current difficulties with water availability.

It is important to remember that the relationship between energy and water is one of interdependence; water companies use considerable amounts of energy in the treatment and pumping aspects of their operation. The “water-energy nexus” is the name given to this multifaceted relationship, and is the broad area of interest for my research. There are so many connections between the two that could be explored, with cooling towers and hydraulic fracturing serving as just two examples, but the aim for my research is to focus on the most significant challenge or opportunity that the energy sector creates for the water resource. Through doing this, we can identify ways to improve the management of water today, or better prepare for potential challenges in the future.


If you would like to discuss any part of this blog post further, I would love to hear from you. I can be reached at n.kelly@lboro.ac.uk or on Twitter using @NaomiKellyUK.


Further Reading

Met Office – http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/news/releases/archive/2014/early-winter-stats

Thames Water – http://www.thameswater.co.uk/cycles/accessible/water_cycle.html

Houses of Parliament: Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology – www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/POST-PN-419.pdf

Defra (Consultation on Reforming the Water Abstraction Management System) – https://consult.defra.gov.uk/water/abstraction-reform/supporting_documents/abstractionreformconsultcondoc20131217.pdf

Environment Agency – “Water Resources in England and Wales – Current State and Future Pressures” Report

CIWEM (Shale Gas and Water Report ) – http://www.ciwem.org/media/1023221/Shale%20Gas%20and%20Water%20WEB.pdf

British Geological Survey – http://www.bgs.ac.uk/research/groundwater/shaleGas/home.html



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