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The water-energy nexus explained

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The water-energy nexus explained
When we prioritise protecting our local water sources such as our dams, rivers and wetlands, we are investing indirectly in cheap and efficient power. Image credit: Leon Louw for WhyAfrica

The water-energy nexus explained  

The more we protect water, the more we can produce cheap and reliable power.

By Chetan Mistry

Energy powers the world. Water keeps it alive. These natural resources are under severe strain as urban areas grow and modernisation expands to create greater possibilities for our future.

Yet, while energy and water are essential, few realise they are closely connected. Nations that look after their water also create more ways to improve energy output and resilience.

Water and energy depend on each other. You need energy to clean water and pump it to where people can use it. You need water to help generate energy and cool energy systems.

If there are water shortages or problems with the water quality, most energy infrastructure will fail. And while we can create energy through many ingenious techniques, we cannot create water and must protect it.

Here are three reasons that demonstrate the water-energy nexus and how they depend on each other:

The water-energy nexus explained
Malawi is a stable mining jurisdiction in Africa. Image credit: Lindian Resources.

Energy production relies on water (The water-energy nexus explained)  

Most types of energy infrastructure require large amounts of water. It’s critical for the most prominent types of power generation, namely coal and nuclear power. Both use water to generate steam that powers electricity-generating turbines.

Hydroelectric power uses moving water to move turbines, including the pumped-storage hydroelectricity sites that generate emergency power.

Wind and solar manufacturers use water to manufacture their components. Oil and gas extraction processes use considerable amounts of water. For example, fracking a single well for shale gas uses, on average, nearly 57 million litres of water.

Coal stations use a lot of water (The water-energy nexus explained)  

Traditional coal-powered stations consume enormous amounts of water. Producing one megawatt-hour of energy can require as much as 40,000 litres of water. South Africa’s current generation capacity is 58,000 megawatts—we use considerable amounts of water for coal generation, though South Africa’s consumption is comparable to international norms.

But this still means that increased water stress will significantly impact coal generation. As water levels and availability deplete, it will reduce the effectiveness of coal power stations.

While renewable energy systems also have water demands, they pale compared to coal extraction and energy processes and pose far smaller pollution risks to water sources.

Water and power impacts GDP (The water-energy nexus explained)  

Gross domestic product (GDP) is the overall value that a country generates. Electricity is a crucial part of GDP; experts estimate that power generation represents about 15 percent of South Africa’s GDP.

Eskom is also regarded as a strategic water user. Even though power generation is not the thirstiest sector in South Africa, it does consume close to two percent of the country’s water and remains a critical sector that will need more in the future.

If there are water shortages, power will be one of the groups taking precedence, likely taking water away from other vital sectors, such as agriculture.

The water-energy nexus is a well-documented partnership between two of our most essential natural resources. In a water-stressed country like South Africa, appreciating this nexus will allow us to create energy security through water stewardship.

There is healthy debate about which power generation options are the best for our future. But water often gets left out of the conversation even though it is one of the best ways to improve energy yields and profitability.

We can make big gains for both water and energy by using energy-efficient pumping solutions, smarter water technologies, and digital water management platforms.

And when we prioritise protecting our local water sources such as our dams, rivers and wetlands, we are investing indirectly in cheap and efficient power.

Water and energy go hand in hand. Whether it’s power to clean sewage at wastewater sites, pumping clean water to our homes, spinning generation units and cool power equipment, or mining energy resources, energy relies on water, and water won’t reach us without energy.

Water also creates unique opportunities for clean, reliable, and cheap energy, such as micro-hydroelectric systems that can be used on industrial sites. But without clean and reliable water sources, all energy options start to dry up. Even solar panels need water for manufacturing and maintenance.

Without water, there is no energy, and without energy, there is no water. When we respect the water-energy nexus, we create a better future.

Chetan Mistry, Strategy and Marketing Manager at Xylem Africa

The water-energy nexus explained
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