Electricity and water together for sustainability

Althesys Strategic Consultants, in partnership with Enel Foundation, has carried out the study Energy for water sustainability, a research that aims to display possible synergies between hydro and electrical sector in order to develop sustainability in both industries.  Alessandro Marangoni, CEO of Althesys Strategic Consultants, with Giuseppe Montesano, Deputy Director of Enel Foundation, presented the study during a webinar on October 21, in which they drew with other stakeholders a possible national strategy for water supply security.

The study faces water-energy nexus in Italy and aims to propose policies and best practices that will foster actions and investments for managing and making a better use of both water and energy. In this direction, the research shows how considering water and energy resources in an integrated way can help achieve several sustainability goals. It also describes all needed actions to strengthen synergies between the two industries.

The work estimates that the set of possible actions leads to a potential contribution of 5.9 TWh per year of additional electricity, with an additional water availability of approximately 2.8 billion cubic meters.

The transformation of the energy sector and the acceleration of the effects of climate change are making the link between energy and water ever closer. The management of water and energy resources is also a key element not only of environmental policies but also of economic and industrial ones. The progressive reduction of water availability globally is combined with the increase in energy consumption. There are numerous interactions between water management and the current and potential activities of the electricity industry.

The different sectors of water use (agriculture, civil, industry, energy) are evolving towards more efficient management, also driven by international and European policies. At the same time, to respond to climate change, resilient infrastructures are increasingly needed, as well as collaborations between the various parties involved: from utilities to industrial companies, from farmers to communities, from local authorities to national institutions.

We need an integrated management of water resources and their uses. The electricity sector is developing greater resilience, in order to guarantee both energy and water supply security. This result can be achieved while increasing the efficiency of plants and processes and the incidence of renewable sources in the fuel mix.

In this context, some activities of the electricity industry, in addition to the traditional hydroelectric, can offer solutions to optimize water management. In parallel, some water infrastructures can offer development opportunities for the electricity system.

The contribution of the electricity sector to water sustainability can be significant, bringing multiple benefits in terms of water saving and protection of the territory. The areas of intervention can be different: technologies for renewable sources, desalination, geothermal energy, hydroelectric pumping, widespread basins, etc.

The development of renewables, in particular, can lead to very significant water savings in the energy sector. Thanks to a significantly lower water footprint compared to other sources, wind and photovoltaic could reduce water consumption in Europe by up to 1.6 billion m 3 by 2030, equivalent to the annual consumption of citizens of a nation like Germany.

To achieve supply security, both water and energy, the firm puts forward a series of proposals that involve the various sectors (energy, industry, agriculture, utilities) in a coordinated way with a view to multiple use of the resource. The guidelines for drawing up a national strategy are divided into some main areas.

The completion of the unfinished works still present in our country would allow an additional electricity production estimated at almost 30 GWh per year with an additional water availability of about 850 million cubic meters.

The renewal of large hydroelectric basins , which constitute the main share of the current renewable generation, could also provide a significant contribution not only on the energy side, but also on the water side. They could also contribute to land management, containing hydrogeological instability. The study estimates the contribution to energy supply security at around 4 TWh and the contribution to water security at 900 million m 3 .

Pumped storage tanks, which are one of the solutions also identified in the PNIEC to ensure the balance and adequacy of the Italian electricity system, could potentially lead to up to 2.5 TWh of electricity generation additional. Particular attention should be paid to the possibility of reconverting existing infrastructures in the Center-South.

Desalination plants could help to tackle water scarcity with investments along two lines: one in the short term and of a smaller entity, the other in the medium-long term and of greater commitment . In the first case we are talking about the plants in the smaller islands combined with electricity generation from renewable sources. A longer-term plan could, on the other hand, concern large plants to deal with the progressive desertification that will affect the major islands and part of the South in the coming years.

Other contributions to energy-water supply security could come from disused quarries and mines by recovering abandoned areas with potential environmental and landscape impacts and a capacity to accumulate water for both irrigation and civil needs . Likewise for the use of rolling tanks and other basins with the possible association of the work with small-medium hydroelectric plants.

The Invasi Plan, already funded with 250 million euros for 30 interventions identified in the period 2018-22 could be a ready-made solution to be activated in a short time. The goal is to go in the direction of a much broader national plan of small and medium-sized reservoirs, which would involve an estimated 20 billion euros in investments, with important economic and ocucpational repercussions for the country.

Several factors affect the implementation of these interventions: planning, time and financial resources. To best coordinate the works, it is necessary to provide, first of all, an integrated planning and management approach for water resources and hydrogeological basins to develop strategies that combine environmental and energy objectives. The benefits arising from the multiple use of the water resource should be maximized thanks to the efficient use of reservoirs and other solutions analyzed.

A shared management strategy is therefore necessary between the various stakeholders, which reconciles the needs of local communities with those of the country as a whole. In this logic it is necessary to evaluate an integrated territorial water authority , so far absent, to which the responsibility for the overall planning and management of water uses is entrusted.

Another relevant factor is time: evaluation and authorization procedures for excessively dilated works are at the basis of the serious delays in their construction. facilitated routes with certain times, “fast tracks”, are needed to effectively implement many of the interventions, in particular those on existing works, for which environmental impact assessments and permitting processes have already been carried out. Finally, financing : in addition to European programs related to the Green New Deal, it is also necessary to resort to specific financial instruments, such as green bonds, dedicated funds and infrastructural funds, capable of securing the territory and the environment.

Many of the interventions could also enter fully into the National Recovery and Resilience Plan being defined for access to European tools to respond to the effects of the pandemic.

The future of hydraulic works is destined to be multifunctional, therefore it is necessary to develop strategies to combine environmental and energy objectives, aimed at maximizing the benefits deriving from the multiple use of the water resource.

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