EU Science Hub

Freshwater use from the European energy sector

Mar 15 2019

In 2015 the operation of the European energy sector required about 74 billion m3 of fresh water, an important natural resource which will become scarcer around the world due to the effects of climate change. A recent JRC report estimates that the European energy industry will considerably decrease its water use in the future, mainly thanks to the increasing share of renewable energy sources – whose water needs are much smaller than those of nuclear and coal power plants. However, at the same time, water scarcity could increase the competition between its different uses (such as food production and public supply); therefore, careful planning and new technological solutions will be needed to make sure that no disruptions occur.

According to the IEA, global energy-related water withdrawal ranges between 398 and 583 billion m3 per year, which amounts to around 10% of the total water abstraction for all purposes. Between 48 and 66 billion m3 are actually consumed, whereas the rest is returned to the environment. The EU accounts for 12% of the energy-related withdrawals and 10 % of the consumption at the global level, whereas the water demand from the energy sector accounts for 42% of the total EU water abstraction.

Water is required for every stage of the energy cycle, from the extraction and processing of fossil fuels to the generation of electricity. Water shortages have already impacted the European energy system in several occasions in the last few years, forcing to reduce the output of some power plants due to lack of cooling during heat waves. For example, in July 2018 EDF was forced to reduce its nuclear energy production, curtailing the Fessenheim 2 reactor output from 900 to 400 MW and stopping the Bugey 3 reactor (900 MW). In other cases, EDF extended the planned reactor outages, as for Bugey 2 (900 MW) and St. Alban 1 (1300 MW).The same plants were also closed on a previous occurrence in the summer of 2015, exposing an increasing vulnerability of energy plants to water scarcity and high temperature of cooling waters.

This study is a first attempt to estimate how much water is used by the energy system in each European region, and how this demand will change between now and 2050. According to the EU energy reference scenario 2016, freshwater withdrawals for energy would decrease to 45 billion m3 by 2050. This would amount to a one-third reduction with respect to 2015, but the total withdrawal would still be close to the current amount of fresh water extracted for public supply. Around 5% of the water withdrawn by the EU energy system is consumed (respectively 3.8 and 2.7 billion m3 in 2015 and 2050).

The energy system as a whole uses a significant part of all fresh water extracted in the EU, and in the future the increased competition for water due to its decreasing availability could lead to bigger problems. On the other hand, the local nature of the issue cannot be downplayed: the energy mix of each country, its population and access to sea water affect considerably the use of water in the energy sector. Regions with nuclear power plants or with both coal mines and coal power plants are now the most critical in this respect, but if water availability decreases in the future countries with limited access to seawater for power plant cooling may also face negative consequences.

The data provided in this report will be helpful to develop energy and environmental policies; furthermore, the study has identified a list of regions where water use for energy is already at a critical level. It also suggests that smart management systems should be designed to minimise closure of power plants due to lack of water in the future, and that support to the research and development of technical solutions for achieving further reductions of the water used by the energy sector should target coal mining and electricity generation from nuclear and coal power plants as well as air-based cooling technologies.