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Heatwaves test the limits of energy and water systems in Europe (PEER)

PEER Locations

SYKE - Finnish Environment Institute (Finland) DCE - Danish Centre for Environment and Energy, Aarhus University (Denmark) EC JRC - European Commission, Joint Research Centre IRSTEA - National Research Institute of Science and Technology for Environment and Agriculture (France) CEH - Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (United Kingdom) Wageningen Environmental Research (Alterra) UFZ - Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (Germany) CIENS - Oslo Centre for Interdisciplinary Environmental and Social Research peer

Heatwaves test the limits of energy and water systems in Europe

08/12/2019, JRC

Heatwaves are affecting the supply of water, which is essential for cooling power plants and for the production of fuels and hydropower.
Warmer climates are affecting the supply of water, which is essential for cooling power plants and for the production of fuels and hydropower. ©tailex, Adobe Stock 2019 zoom

A new JRC analysis proposes actions for addressing these kind of problems 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, 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.

As our energy demand is predicted to increase, scientists see the rising temperatures as a threat to the proper functioning of our energy and water systems.

"July 2019 was the warmest month on record. Rising temperatures have an impact on the energy and the water systems – two systems which are very dependent on one another. The energy industry is heavily dependent on the availability of water, but also the water sector depends on energy to be able to collect, pump, treat and desalinate water", said JRC researcher Davide Magagna, one of the authors of the study.

Interdependency between water and energy systems increases uncertainty

The strong interdependency between the energy and water systems is the focus of a new JRC Science for Policy Report.

The report characterises this interdependency as a "critical uncertainty".

"Until recently, the strong link between the water and energy sectors was not considered a major issue. But with the rising temperatures, it is quickly becoming a critical one. Although we are now using more and more renewable energy, the energy sector and even some forms of renewable energy require a lot of water. But our freshwater resources are limited and vulnerable to the effects of climate change", explains Davide. 

This could 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.

"By 2050, water may be scarcer, and we have to take that into consideration when we look at possible solutions for decarbonisation".

Technology options for reducing the water needs of the EU energy system

It is expected that by 2050, overall water withdrawn and consumed by the energy sector will decrease, but the energy sector will still need a considerable amount of water to function.

Climate change will have a negative impact on water availability and water scarcity could lead to more frequent power generation problems in several regions in the EU.

"Climate models suggest that the disruptions observed during the summer 2018 will become more common and harsher. Water scarcity will be felt across Europe, affecting at least 90 million Europeans. And this will not only occur in the Mediterranean regions, but also in other countries such as Poland, Czechia and Germany", said JRC researcher Giovanni Bidoglio, another of the study's authors.

"Our assessments indicate that there will be more floods and droughts, higher water temperatures and changes in the seasonal patterns of river flows. These events will impact both the cooling of power plants and hydropower generation", continued Giovanni.

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 of them.

Although the decarbonisation of the energy system is expected to drive a significant reduction of water use by 2050, coal and nuclear power plants would still account for 50 % of projected water use in 2050.

"Opting for renewable energy forms which are not water intensive, such as wind or solar power, would further reduce the water requirements of the EU energy system, thus making it also more secure", Davide Magagna explains.

The report also recommends the use of air-based and advanced cooling systems, as well as finding the proper trade-offs between open-loop and closed-loop cooling systems (as the latter withdraw less but consume more).

Further options include the use of waste heat for heating purposes 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.

Integrated policies for energy and water are needed

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's report calls for integrated water-energy policies, and provides several policy recommendations on how to boost the use of low-carbon energy sources while keeping our water resources sustainable.

Introducing water-related criteria in long-term energy policies – for instance in the form of a "water footprint" – and looking at the management of water and energy resources together rather than separately are among the proposed measures.

The report also proposes some operational measures, including the development of energy efficiency indicators and targets for the water sector, as well as boosting research activities on innovative water- and energy-saving technologies.

Looking ahead

The key messages of the JRC's ‘Water-Energy Nexus in Europe’ Science for Policy Report were discussed during the EU Sustainable Energy Week (EUSEW) in June 2019.

About the Water, Food and Energy Nexus

The Water, Food and Energy Nexus concept was first introduced by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).  

It reflects the fact that water security, energy security and food security are all linked to one another, and actions in any one area can have effects in one or both of the other areas.

It addresses the complex and interrelated nature of our global resource systems, on which we depend to achieve different social, economic and environmental goals.

The JRC has been working on research projects based on the principle of the water-food-energy nexus since 2016.