Roundtable Underscores Need, Efforts to Integrate Energy and Water Systems

A DOE-sponsored roundtable held this week is drawing stakeholder attention to what officials call the energy-water nexus – a phrase that readily describes the increasing interdependence between water and energy systems.

The event held Wednesday at DOE’s National Renewable Energy Research Laboratory (NREL) brought together leaders in the water and energy sectors from government, industry, non-profits and academia to explore energy-water challenges, strategies and visions related to fuels production. Representatives from both the bioenergy and fossil fuel sectors were invited to meet both together and separately over the course of a 5-hour session to share views on water quality, efficiency, treatment, management, disposal, and recycling during conventional and unconventional oil and gas production, biofeedstock processing and upgrading, and fuel refining.

Water is used in all phases of energy production, including the irrigation of crops for biofuels. On the other hand, energy is needed to draw water from both above- and below-ground sources, move that water and then deliver it to meet a wide range of needs. Even though they are interdependent (thus the “nexus”), energy and water systems historically have been developed, managed and regulated separately. DOE is drawing stakeholders together to find ways to integrate those functions to better address challenges to both being posed by climate change

This week’s roundtable was the second in a series of six aimed at stimulating cooperation between the energy and water sectors and to enhance DOE’s work on the issue. In addition to sharing information, stakeholders identified challenges and opportunities, and prioritized actions to reduce vulnerability and improve the reliability of energy systems that rely on water by increasing water efficiency, identifying substitutes for water, and expanding available water resources through improvements in water treatment

(Subsequent roundtables will focus on separate issues, including, electricity, energy from and for water infrastructure and use, and systems integration.)

Stakeholders at this week’s invitation-only roundtable ‑ including representatives of the 25x’25 Alliance – came into the event understanding that as the largest single consumer of water, agriculture competes directly with the energy sector for water resources. However, they know that agriculture and America’s rural areas also contribute to the energy sector via production of both biofuels and electricity.

The dilemma faced by roundtable participants is that both connections will be strained by increasing concerns over water availability and quality.

The use of water in the production of biofuels has long been the subject of much attention. While improvement in the use of any natural resource is constantly being sought, crop producers can take particular pride in the steep decline in the amount of water being used to irrigate feedstocks and produce biofuels. The most recent Field-to-Market assessment ‑ an analysis of environmental and socioeconomic indicators that shows sustainability trends over time at the national scale for U.S. crops – found that irrigation (as measured in volume per bushel) for corn – the principal feedstock for first generation biofuel – has fallen 53 percent over a 30-year period that began in the 1980s.

Even with that growing efficiency, the DOE makes clear that the effects of climate change ‑ including rising average temperatures, shifting precipitation patterns, increasing climate variability, and more frequent extreme weather events – are altering the availability and predictability of water resources. These effects, combined with population growth, are intensifying existing competition for water resources and impact energy production and distribution, driving the need for an integrated approach to water and energy development and regulation.

The evolving U.S. energy portfolio combined with advances in technology and modeling creates an opportunity to effectively manage the interdependencies of the U.S. water and energy systems and construct a future energy sector that is more resilient and equipped to manage uncertainties in climate impacts.

25x’25 Executive Committee member A.G. Kawamura, an Orange County, CA, specialty crops grower and a former secretary of California Department of Food and Agriculture, participated in the roundtable. He says the term “resilient agriculture” is most often used in describing the adaptation of crop production to meet climate change.

“Today, we must expand its meaning to embrace that exciting nexus between food, water and energy. We must build smart, resilient systems that converge new thinking with new technologies,” Kawamura says. He cites as an answer “climate smart agriculture,” the focus of a Solutions from the Land initiative launched by 25x’25 and now a stand-alone project co-chaired by Kawamura. “Climate smart agriculture, by definition, describes a different kind of thinking that is proactive in its approach. We need to anticipate the needs for a sustainable, thriving kind of agricultural abundance. At its core comes a commitment to building robust, collaborative systems of energy, water and soil.”

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