Experts at Newcastle University are warning the government that its current thinking on future energy generation risks locking the UK into a situation where water availability could put energy security in danger.

Now the researchers are calling on policymakers to give greater consideration to the electricity sector’s ‘water footprint’, to minimise the risk of power stations having to reduce production or, in extreme scenarios, shut down altogether if water shortages mean they cannot remain operational.

In a paper to be published in Global Environmental Change, Ed Byers from Newcastle University’s School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences, with co-authors Dr Jaime Amezaga, also from Newcastle University, and Professor Jim Hall from the University of Oxford, has evaluated the demands for cooling water from the UK electricity sector. The researchers analysed the current and likely future levels of water abstraction and consumption for six potential future energy pathways, including four pathways identified by Department of Energy & Climate Change in its 2011 Carbon Plan.

The research shows that up to 2030, all six of the pathways studied reduce water intensity as well as resulting in lower levels of carbon dioxide. This is mainly due to closure of coal capacity from the EU Large Combustion Plant Directive, as well as a transition to cooling systems which use less water. But from 2030-2050 results diverged.

Pathways with high levels of carbon capture and storage (CCS), a technology being pushed by the government, will increase freshwater consumption and intensity by between 30-69%, while pathways with high nuclear capacity result in significantly higher levels of tidal and coastal water abstraction, with potential increases ranging from 148% to 399% on 2010 levels.

However, pathways with high levels of renewables have the lowest water abstraction and consumption rates. In particular, the pathway with high renewables and increased energy efficiency saw overall water consumption decrease by more than 20% and freshwater consumption reduce by around 60%.

Byers said: “The UK government is currently looking at policies to decarbonise the electricity sector, including considering a new generation of nuclear power stations, renewables such as hydro, wind and solar, and fossil-fuelled generation with carbon capture and storage. However, policymakers are primarily focusing on issues around security of supply, affordability and emissions reductions. Wider impacts, such as the dependency on water for cooling, are not strongly considered as a barrier to development, let alone a potential vulnerability of our future electricity system. High water consumption could also put other sectors at risk during water shortages.

“The high dependency on water in electricity generation means there is a real possibility that in just a few decades some power stations may be forced to decrease production or shut down if there are water shortages, which may be expected with changes in climate and a growing population.

“Given the long-term nature of energy infrastructure projects, the decisions the government is making now will set the UK on a track that will seal our future, for better or worse. It is vital that policymakers seriously consider the levels of water use across different potential energy pathways, giving credit to those options that reduce carbon emissions while maintaining the UK’s water security and protecting our marine and estuarine environments.”

The paper also shows that the location of generation facilities could have a significant impact on the UK’s water systems. It suggests that clustered sites of CCS power stations, which are encouraged in the government’s CCS Roadmap in order to reduce the costs of CO2 compression and transport infrastructure, could both contribute towards - and be vulnerable to - localised water shortages.

Byers added: “As inland water resources will need to be sustainably managed for other sectors such as agriculture and public water supply, there is a risk that coastal locations will become increasingly saturated with power generation facilities, which will have an impact on marine and estuarine environments. There needs to be better regional coordination of energy infrastructure development and water resources, to help ensure that sufficient water resources are available to all sectors, and that they are used in the most efficient ways possible.”