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Energy, Water and Fish: Making Considered Choices


By Marty Downs

The relationships among energy production, water resources and biodiversity can seem a bit like the old rock-paper-scissors game. What’s good for one always seems to be bad for another. In the white paper, Principles for Protecting Freshwater Resources and Biodiversity during a Low-Carbon Energy Transition, Carey King, Assistant Director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, summarizes the tradeoffs among water and energy security, water quality, carbon management and freshwater biodiversity for over 35 conventional and emerging energy technologies. The paper also examines which policy options are likely to be effective in encouraging or discouraging each technology.  

According to Dr. King’s analysis, many approaches to energy-generation and management — such as hydropower, biofuels, and water-cooled power plants — do present challenging tradeoffs; others — such as solar photovoltaics, wind, and energy conserving buildings and appliances — are all-around winners. 

The paper concludes with a set of recommended principles to plan for resilient energy and biodiversity solutions that are driven by global needs for energy and greenhouse gas mitigation. These include:

  • Advance Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) to ensure that all water uses are considered in tandem.
  • Protect and restore environmental flows. Variation in seasonal and annual streamflow patterns is important for maintaining freshwater biodiversity and ecosystem health.
  • Invest in energy technologies and urban planning to minimize water consumption, withdrawal, and stream alteration.
  • Use storage as a translational concept. In both energy and water sectors, timing can be as important as the quantity of energy or water available. King proposes that this concept forms a bridge between the two sectors that can improve communication and learning.
  • Effective governance needs good data collection and management

Dr. King’s report was developed as a follow up to the Nature Conservancy’s 2012 report on Energy, Water and Fish: Biodiversity Impacts of Energy-Sector Water Demand in the United States Depend on Efficiency and Policy Measures and is presented here as a courtesy to the Global Water Forum and Dr. King.

Marty Downs is associate director of science communications with the Nature Conservancy

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