Water's role in the energy transition

(Photo: Unsplash)

Hamzeh S. Al-Alayani

The writer is a board member of a Jordanian public-sector government investments management company and a regular commentator on regional energy and industrial matters.

The energy transition toward net-zero emissions changes how we use water but does not necessarily reduce our dependence on it. Even low-carbon technologies like hydrogen, renewable fuels, batteries, pumped storage hydropower, nuclear, and carbon capture have unique water needs. And a lot of the time, those needs require a lot of water. اضافة اعلان

As a result of the global energy transition, new players and potential partners have emerged. Renewable supermajors are progressing towards large-scale hydrogen, energy storage, and water asset ownership, which could reshape the water industry landscape.

Green hydrogen, in particular, could play a crucial role in the green transition, with the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimating that it could avoid up to 60 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions to meet our net-zero goals. However, the estimated 3,585,000 megawatts of electrolyzer capacity required by 2050 will need roughly 18 million tpd of water or 7,200 Olympic-sized swimming pools daily.
The world is facing an imminent water crisis, with demand expected to outstrip fresh water supply by 40 percent by the end of this decade.
According to Water UK's Net Zero 2030 Roadmap, if hydrogen emerges as an alternative fuel for power and transportation, water demand could increase by 15 percent to 20 percent. While any uptick in demand should financially benefit water utility coffers, it could also stress existing water infrastructure and drive up the need for additional infrastructure investments in new capacity.

Water stewardship is critical to the viability of industrial projects, and it is becoming even more important amid the energy transition. Understanding the dynamic and complex relationship between water and energy is crucial, especially in the context of the energy transition. The new perspectives of the water–energy nexus, water-for-energy, and energy-for-water emphasize the need to find ways to produce as much energy with as little water as possible and obtain as much water with as little energy as possible to promote and implement sustainable development.

The world is facing an imminent water crisis, with demand expected to outstrip fresh water supply by 40 percent by the end of this decade. About 2 billion people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water today, and roughly half of the world's population is experiencing severe water scarcity for at least part of the year. These numbers are expected to increase, exacerbated by climate change and population growth.
Water and wastewater utilities must adapt to a future built on clean energy.
Under current trends, the water shortage is forcing governments to spend $200 billion annually on upstream water supply as demand outstrips cheaper supply forms — up from historical averages of $40 to $45 billion.

Hydrogen production also produces wastewater because of the purity level required by electrolyzers, which creates a saline effluent containing all the salinity from the water supply in a smaller wastewater stream.

Low-carbon hydrogen is integral to the energy transition, and water is critical for hydrogen projects. So, water and wastewater management must be considered in hydrogen production.

Suppliers of energy, chemicals, and resources will also need billions more liters of fresh water and new ways to reuse the water to operate the water-dependent projects required to meet their decarbonization goals. Every water-intensive industrial business must rethink its relationship with our planet's most precious resource.

Alternative water supplies through reclaiming wastewater and desalination, particularly in coastal environments, should be at the forefront of utility (and power developer) strategies. Water reuse, a lower cost, and resilient water supply at $0.66 to $1.62 per meter cubed could bridge the gap between producers and off-takers. 

Water and wastewater utilities must adapt to a future built on clean energy. The potential economic benefits could also accelerate project financing for capital-intensive municipal and private water projects that often slow down project development. Their historic energy paradigm has led to design and operation practices incompatible with the changing energy market.

It is for this reason that water utilities need to anticipate the needs, get up on the learning curve, and leverage hydrogen as a chance to strengthen their role in guiding smarter cities and communities.

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