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The Water-Energy Nexus and the Clean Power Plan

On March 22nd, the global community will celebrate World Water Day. Created in 1993 by the United Nations, World Water Day was established not only to celebrate water, but to bring countries, organizations, and individuals together to work towards a global water solution.[i]Each year a theme is chosen in order to highlight certain issues related to water resources. The theme for 2015 is water and sustainable development. As countries work towards reducing poverty, creating social equality, and growing their economy, it is of the utmost importance that their laws and regulations also reflect the need to protect water resources from the pollution and destruction that comes with heavy economic development. To that end, the UN has pinpointed the inseparability of water and energy as a focal point of World Water Day. The core interconnection of the water and energy sectors is known as the water-energy nexus.[ii] In the US today, that connection means that any new energy policy must account for its effects on the water sector, and vice versa, in order to ensure sustainability.

Water is required to produce energy (to mine coal, drill oil, refine gasoline and generate and distribute electricity), and energy is required to deliver water (to pump, transport, treat and distribute clean water).[iii] The demand for reliable energy and fresh water has intensified as the global population has grown, and economic development has spurred rapid urbanization and the emergence of global energy markets.[iv] The United States’ energy sector was the largest water consumer in the economy in 2010, surpassing even the agricultural sector.[v] Eighty percent of the world’s power comes from thermal electricity (e.g. coal fired power plants), and billions of gallons of water are required throughout the energy generation process.[vi]

Water policy and energy policy have developed separately over the years, and as such there have been “tradeoffs between water and energy security.”[vii] Climate change policies adopted by governments often lean toward strategies that use large amounts of water in order to improve air quality and ensure sustainable access to energy.[viii] Water policy today still does not fully take into account the impact of energy generation on water consumption, although there have been some efforts, such as the Energy and Water Research Integration Act in 2010, to bring the regulation of the two sectors together in the US.[ix] Although the proposed act was not passed due to time constraints, it was originally created “‘to ensure consideration of water intensity in the Department of Energy’s energy research, development, and demonstration programs to help guarantee efficient reliable and sustainable delivery of energy and water resources.’”[x] The need to couple regulation of the water and energy sectors is becoming increasingly apparent.

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency announced the Clean Power Plan (CPP) as its most recent rule-making initiative under the Clean Air Act in order to curb the impact of climate change and reduce US carbon emissions. The CPP will require states to reduce carbon pollution from existing power plants through a variety of means, including a shift away from coal fired power plants toward other energy sources like natural gas and nuclear, and renewable energy sources such as hydroelectric, solar, and wind power.[xi]

With the focus of the CPP on carbon emissions, some incidental impacts on water resources have now come to the surface. Some organizations are concerned that the CPP directly and indirectly incentivizes hydraulic fracturing to produce natural gas.[xii] One of EPA’s four building blocks for state implementation is to increase utilization of natural gas because it is a cost-effective way to decrease carbon emissions.[xiii] More than 60% of natural gas is produced through fracking, a process that requires a large amount of water, and which leaks pollutants into water resources, threatening the drinking water supply.[xiv]Fracking requires millions of gallons of water for each well, and can impact the quality of the groundwater and of the streams, rivers and lakes that receive the discharged waste water.[xv]

Other water concerns relate to the CPP’s inclusion of nuclear energy subsidies, which can also have detrimental impacts on water resources.[xvi] Nuclear power generation has the advantage of producing very little CO2, which is why EPA has included it in the CPP toolkit.[xvii] Unfortunately, like coal power, nuclear power generation requires large amounts of water for the cooling process, which is then discharged containing pollutants detrimental to water quality, like heavy metals and salt, that have built up in the water during the process.[xviii]

On the other hand, some models have shown the CPP will allow states to reduce their water consumption. Texas is viewed as a valuable case study for researching the water-energy nexus because it is the largest generator of consumer electricity in the country, it faces great variability in its water resources, and it is subject to intense weather conditions, ranging from droughts to hurricanes.[xix] In 2005, the thermoelectric power generation was the greatest source of water withdrawals in Texas, accounting for forty percent of water withdrawals in the state.[xx] A recent study looked at the impact of the CPP on water consumption rates in Texas.Modeling was done to predict water consumption in 2029, at the consumption rate seen in 2012, and to predict consumption under an implemented Clean Power Plan.[xxi] Without implementing the CPP, water consumption for energy generation would decline by five percent by 2029, but under the CPP, consumption would decline by greater than twenty percent.[xxii]

Dealing with the water-energy nexus requires an integration of water and energy policies, and even more broadly, the climate change sector.[xxiii] Strategies in each sector need to take into account the effects on other aspects of sustainable development, and ensure that increased efficiency in one sector is not having a detrimental impact on another.[xxiv]Legislators and agencies need to ask several important questions in developing regulations: What impacts will water policy and regulation having on energy? What impacts will energy policy and regulation have on water demands and availability? How are climate change policies going to impact the water-energy nexus? How can the negative tradeoffs be dealt with under the regulatory system?[xxv] Until these questions become a focal point of environmental and energy regulation, energy and water policy will continue to have overflowing detrimental effects making policies in both sectors less effective.


Sarah Ladin is a General Member on MJEAL. She can be reached at

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.

[i] Water is Energy,, (last visited March 4, 2015).

[ii] Karen Hussey & Jamie Pittock, The Energy-Water Nexus: Managing the Links between Energy and Water for a Sustainable Future, in 17 Ecology and Society, 1 (2012).

[iii] Id. at 2.

[iv] Christopher A. Scott et al., Policy and Institutional Dimensions of the Water-Energy Nexus, in 39 Energy Policy 6622, 6624 (2011).

[v] Hussey & Pittock, supra note 2, at 2.

[vi] Water is Energy, supra note 1.

[vii] Hussey & Pittock, supra note 2, at 2.

[viii] Id.

[ix] Scott et al, supra note 4, at 6623.

[x] Id.

[xi] Fact Sheet: Clean Power Plan Flexibility, EPA.Gov, (last visited March 4, 2015).

[xii] Food and Water Watch, Incentivizing Fracking: The EPAs Clean Power Plan, (2014) available at

[xiii] Id.

[xiv] Id.

[xv] Scott et al, supra note 4, at 6626.

[xvi] Clean Water For North Carolina, Comments on Proposed Clean Power Plan,available at

[xvii] S.M Rashad & F.H. Hammad, Nuclear Power and the Environment: Comparative Assessment of Environmental and Health Impacts of Electricity Generating Systems, in 65 Applied Energy 211, 215-16 (2000).

[xviii] Clean Energy: Water Discharge, EPA.Gov, (last visited March 4, 2015).

[xix]Hussey & Pittock, supra note 2, at 3.

[xx] Paul Faeth, The Impacts of EPAs Clean Power Plan on Electricity Generation and Water Use in Texas, 1(CNA Analysis and Solutions 2014).

[xxi] Id. at 5-7.

[xxii] Id. at 20.

[xxiii] Hussey & Pittock, supra note 2, at 2.

[xxiv] Id.

[xxv] Id. at 3.

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