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Straight talking: Wind offers much to a world that is short of water

WORLDWIDE: My enduring image from the deadly European heatwave in the summer of 2003 was the picture of bedraggled French firefighters spraying what looked like a pathetically thin stream of water on top of the containment dome of a nuclear power plant in an attempt to keep the reactor cool.

The water levels in the Loire river had sunk below the intake level and, although the reactor had been shut down, there was no way to cool it. All in all, 17 of France's 53 reactors had to be shut down or severely curtailed.

As we experience what is very likely to be the warmest year on planet Earth in thousands of years, coupled with a strong El Nino, we are reminded of the dire consequences of both our misuse of precious fresh water resources and the consequences of changes to the hydrological cycle for our unsustainable energy system.

Brazil has been called "the Saudi Arabia of water", reliant on its vast hydro resources for the bulk of its power for many years. However, a water shortage hit power supplies in 2000, prompting the rethink in its energy system that has led, among other things, to the surge in wind power in recent years. The current drought has not only wreaked havoc on both commercial and domestic life in South America's largest city, Sao Paulo, it has once again caused power cuts and fears for the country's energy system.

Unprecedented droughts

In the US, which combined with Brazil has about 20% of the world's fresh water reserves, many parts of the country, particularly California, are experiencing unprecedented drought conditions, leaving whole communities without water and threatening the agriculture that contributes so much to the Golden State's economy. Groundwater is being pumped at record - and completely unsustainable - levels to compensate for the severely depleted surface water.

Like the atmosphere, which we have been treating as if it were an infinite "sink" into which we could pump our CO2 waste for the past century or so, we're running up against the limits to what once seemed like boundless sources of fresh water.

Global climate change is responsible in part for water shortages in both Brazil - where Amazon deforestation has reduced the capacity of the "lungs of the world" to hold water - and in the western US - where warmer temperatures have led to reduced levels of annually accumulated snowpack and hence less water for the long, dry summer. But at least as much of the problem comes from the misuse of the resources we do have: with massive waste in delivery systems the world over, and "free" or very cheap water in most of the industrialised world, leading to massive waste and overconsumption.

Thirsty power plants

Then there's the power system. Thermal plants, whether they be coal, gas or nuclear, use massive quantities of fresh water for cooling, as well as for fuel extraction and processing/fabrication. Fracking increases water use astronomically, and carbon-capture-and-storage technologies, if implemented, will increase water consumption per kilowatt hour by up to 90%. Even some renewable technologies (biomass and concentrated solar power) use large quantities of water.

As the world comes to grips with the climate problem, we also have a big water problem, for which wind (and solar PV) power can provide a significant part of the solution, consuming zero water in power production and only requiring to be washed occasionally.

Wind power can save up to 2,000 litres of water per megawatt hour against other energy sources, and in 2013 alone saved 138.2 billion litres, according to the US Department of Energy (DOE). That number would grow to between 830 billion and 1.9 trillion litres per annum by 2050, given the range of scenarios considered in the DOE's recent Wind Vision study. Similar numbers can be found for other countries.

Wind (and solar PV) energy in and of themselves cannot lead to the changes in water management and pricing that will combat the current massive leakage and waste, but they can dramatically reduce the burden on the supply side. Wind power not only produces zero carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide, but can play a significant role in reducing the burden on already water-stressed ecosystems across the world, especially in places which chronically suffer from water shortages such as northern China, the western US, much of Africa and South Asia and, yes, even in Brazil.

Steve Sawyer is CEO of the Global Wind Energy Council

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