Water Supply, Desalination, Climate Change, and Energy Policy
31 Pages Posted: 13 Jun 2009 Last revised: 6 Dec 2013
Date Written: March 6, 2010
In the context of water supply, “water is energy.” Two aspects of the intersection of energy and water in supplying water become important. First, there are always trade-offs among energy use, economic costs and benefits, social benefits, and environmental costs in providing for water supply. Second, as a matter of governance, the political and legal mechanisms currently available for establishing water and energy policies do not allow the relevant decisionmakers to consider all of these relevant trade-offs explicitly and coherently.
This article explores the water supply-energy matrix through the lens of desalination, an increasingly popular water supply technology. It begins by reviewing current and projected future water shortages in the United States and worldwide that are prompting increased interest in desalination, then looks at desalination as a water-supply solution in terms of both costs and environmental impacts. Finally, it examines two types of alternative energy desalination - wind-powered desalination and solar-powered desalination. These new types of desalination may both provide for climate-friendly desalination and allow consistently productive uses of these sporadic alternative sources of electricity, particularly when one considers water to be a form of energy storage.
The article concludes that trying to definitively establish whether desalination is “good” or “bad” misses the point. Desalination is one water supply technology among many. All such technologies involve trade-offs. Desalination is a new or unusual water supply technology in most places. Moreover, it comes with glaringly obvious energy and environmental concerns. As a result, increased use of desalination may have the salutary effect of encouraging full and public consideration of water and energy needs and the potential social and environmental impacts of water supply.
Keywords: water, energy, climate change, desalination, trade-offs, energy policy, water supply, economic costs
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