James Rose, GRACE Communications Foundation

Energy, food and water are inextricably linked, a fact that is increasingly recognised as one of the most important issues facing our planet.

Energy production needs water for the purposes of cooling and conversely, treating and transporting water takes energy. Additionally, conventional food production and distribution – including the production and transportation of artificial fertilisers and pesticides – requires a tremendous amount of energy. So a shortage of water can severely inhibit both energy and food production, and may require additional energy to pump water over greater distances and from deeper wells for both drinking and irrigation.

It is essential that a country which seeks to be healthy, secure and sustainable takes a holistic approach to the social, environmental and security challenges presented by the interdependencies between these three issues. As such, the GRACE Communications Foundation’s new report, “Food, Water and Energy: Know the Nexus,” describes how and where these systems intersect, how they rely upon each other to function and how they can have a significant impact on each other and on our lives.

Renewable energy plays an important role at the nexus of the issues, especially given the crucial role that clean generators – for example, solar, wind and geothermal – can play in the sustainable management of water resources and agricultural practices.

As more consumer-side renewable generation systems, such as solar photovoltaics (PV) and small wind turbines, come online and begin producing electricity, thermoelectric power plants with antiquated once-through cooling systems could be phased out or units could at least run for fewer hours. The key point is that distributed energy resources, like PV, use no water in generating electricity, and energy efficiency measures reduce the overall need for water-intensive energy generated by fossil fuel or nuclear power plants. If a significant percentage of the overall electric generation portfolio comes from renewable sources or if electricity usage is decreased through efficiency, the impacts on water will be significantly reduced.

While generally cleaner than old plants, new fossil fuel power plants still pollute more than renewables. With a high penetration of renewables, utilities can avoid new fossil fuel generation. This would not only spare the potential water body from the direct effects of providing cooling water to the power plant, but also avoid indirect impacts on air and water resources. Avoided indirect impacts include contaminating water used in the fuel extraction process (especially with water intensive hydraulic fracturing) and water polluted with coal ash. 

From the sun’s rays that allow plants to grow, to transporting goods from the field to the market, producing food requires energy. Improving energy efficiency and utilising renewable energy sources can serve as a resource to help farmers increase profits while decreasing their reliance on fossil fuels. Farmers have a long tradition of being stewards of the land. Investing in renewable energy and using it more efficiently are important steps to protecting the land, air, and water upon which all farmers depend.

Thanks to advances in technology and policy, those with available resources can take advantage of renewable energy without the hassles of going off-the-grid. But before they can become a larger part of our energy mix, solar and other renewable energy technologies face a patchwork of policies that vary from country to country. This piecemeal approach creates an environment where customer-generators can realise greater economic benefits from clean energy systems in one location over another regardless of available renewable resources. For example, the world’s leader in solar energy is cloudy Germany.

However, consumers and businesses are increasingly exercising more involvement in energy decisions as illustrated by the growing number of distributed renewable generation systems and energy efficiency improvements in homes and businesses. This is an achievement of market-based mechanisms that can facilitate the use of PV and other distributed types of renewable energy production. Furthermore, if red tape can be removed, the result will be more cost effective renewable energy for consumers.

Given the important role that small-scale renewable energy has to play in the sustainable use and management of our energy, food and water resources, renewable energy policies should be supportive of these other sectors. As noted above, renewable energy will be increasingly used for managing water resources and food production. A holistic approach to promoting healthy and environmentally-responsible living surely involves clean energy.

James Rose is a Senior Research and Policy Analyst at GRACE Communications Foundation