Climate Change Contaminates Global Water and Electricity Systems

And as climate change worsens, our need for more clean water and electricity grows.
Fabienne Lang

Our need for clean water and energy keeps growing as climate change intensifies. Both water and energy are linked, so when we try to work on one challenge, for instance, water recycling, we sometimes exacerbate the other as we use energy-intensive methods to do so. 

As researchers adapt to the issues posed by climate change, they need to ensure their methods complement each other.

A team of researchers from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) in California has developed an analytic framework to look into the link between water and energy, and how to create adaptations that work hand in hand with climate change issues.

Their study was published in Environmental Researcher Letters last month.

Little research on the link between water and energy challenges

"There have been many analyses on how climate change could affect the water and energy sectors separately, but those studies were not typically looking at interactions and feedbacks between the two," explained the lead author of the study, Julia Szinai of Berkeley's Lab.


Szinai and her team developed a generalized framework that looks into how climate change affects both water and electricity systems, and the future adaptations of gaps in supply and demand. 

"By doing so, we illustrate often-overlooked tradeoffs and synergies in adapting to climate change," she continued. 

By understanding the links between these two challenges, future impact on climate change could be minimized. 

Co-author of the paper and Berkeley Lab scientist Andrew Jones said "If we focus on adapting the water system by using big transfers of water across basins, or by using energy-intensive desalination, that’s just going to make the electricity problem much more difficult."

"If, on the other hand, we adapt the water system by conserving water, it’s actually a win-win situation because you’re also reducing the energy required for water."

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The water sector impacts electricity usage, which impacts climate change

The team examined the issue in California, where it's based, and found that the largest direct climate change impact on the electricity sector in the state would come from two factors: air conditioning and lower hydropower availability. 

In terms of the water sector, the team pointed out that the greatest impact of climate change lies in future water supplies. 

By applying their framework to California's water and electricity issues, the researchers found that if the state picked one challenge to face and adapt (for example, water), it would worsen the other challenge (electricity). The end result either way would create an energy imbalance as large as climate change itself.

These could be issues that many states, and indeed countries, could be faced with as time goes on. 

"This study has highlighted the benefit of coordinated adaptation planning between the two sectors," said Szinai

The team is now looking at a more detailed water resources management model and an electricity planning model so that it can create more resilient pathways for building electricity infrastructure when climate change impacts water supplies.