Will water scarcity accelerate the energy transition?

Water is an important factor regarding the usage of fossile and renewable energy carriers. If and how the globally available water supports the usage of renewable energy systems and can thwart fossile energy carriers, is now the focus of a group of nine German research facilities and small and medium-sized enterprises. Under the leadership of the Center for Environmental Systems Research (CESR), University of Kassel, the project WANDEL will develop a solid knowledge base and practice-oriented solutions within the next three years. It is funded by the Federal Research Ministry BMBF with about 2.5 million Euros.

The availability of water and energy are of key importance to a global sustainable development. Energy needs water (for the energy supply) and water needs energy (for the water extraction and treatment). In most cases the supply of energy from renewable sources needs less water than the supply of energy from fossile commodities. Water scarcity could in this context accelerate the transition to renewable energy systems. However, in the case of certain renewable energy systems, namely solar thermal plants in arid regions, conflicts with other water users could arise and inhibit further expansion. 

The overall focus of the joint project WANDEL will be the research question, if reduced water availability limits the usage of conventional energy systems or supports it instead.

It will be researched, how the available renewable water resources will accelerate the energy transition or will adversely affect it. The water footprint methodology will play a crucial role. It reports the amount and origin of water a consumer or producer consumes direct or indirect via products. The water footprint of energy supply and usage is calculated analogously. For the first time, not only the local and regional impacts of energy production in the respective watershed, but also the remote, indirect impacts on regions throughout the world will be tracked considering the regional availability of water. The analysis includes both the identification of hot spots of high water consumption today and in the future (2030 and outlook 2050) along the different global energy production and supply chains and the identification of regional hot spots of high water consumption in relation to regional availability.

WANDEL aims to develop solution approaches. Regulatory and techincal solutions to reduce the impacts of energy systems on water resources will be pointed out within the case studies. In addition to a consortium of science and practice, regional and international practice partners (decision-makers) are involved in the project active. Thus, a basis is established to analyse conflicts based on theory and practice at the same time, in particular to provide possible solutions.

WANDEL is of practical relevance. The detailed analysis will be carried out in four case studies integrating regional players. Two case study sites are located in Germany at the "Upper and Middle Weser river" and the "Upper Danube river" and two are located outside Europe, "Rio dos Patos" in Brazil and "Drâa-Valley" in Morocco. They were selected taking into account to have energy systems with water relevance (coal, hydropower, biomass and solar thermal energy) represented as well as a range of climatic and economic conditions. This strategy enables a suitable transferability of results to similar watersheds.

The joint project WANDEL is funded by the Federal Research Ministry BMBF in the course of the support measure "GRoW – Global Resource Water" within the program "Research for Sustainable Development (FONA)" with about 2.5 million Euros. About 780.000 Euro of the payments are made to the University of Kassel.