Seeing the bigger picture – the water-energy nexus

There are many synergies and connections between the water and energy systems and sectors.We asked Mathaios Panteli, Eduardo Alejandro Martínez Ceseña and Julien Harou from the University of Manchester to tell us more about the opportunities and challenges in jointly planning and developing water-energy systems.


The pressing need to decarbonise our energy consumption will likely involve relying more heavily on other sectors, such as water systems (e.g., hydropower), to produce the large volumes of energy required for new and growing demands, e.g., electric transportation and heating.

This evolution is introducing unprecedented interdependencies in multi-resource systems, and creating demand for integrated water-energy systems.

The trend is placing energy system resilience in the spotlight of policy, regulatory and industrial bodies worldwide, as contingencies in critical energy or water infrastructures increasingly have cascading impacts throughout interconnected systems.

For example, during the June 2018 heatwave in the United Kingdom, the high demand in cooling and water treatment resulted in an increase of 860MW electricity demand (equivalent to 2.5 million households), while in hydropower-rich Venezuela prolonged drought periods have resulted in the energy crisis and rolling blackouts over the last decade or so.

As highlighted by a recent report of the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission, improving or even maintaining current energy system resilience levels is not straightforward. There are multiple gaps in existing regulatory standards to account for infrastructure resilience; perhaps the biggest being the growing complexity of the energy systems as they become more and more coupled with other sectors like water. This is forcing us to rethink the way we plan and operate energy infrastructures, as the already complex tools used for independent water and energy planning (e.g., modelling, analysis and forecasting) become less effective as the sectors become more integrated.

Traditionally, decoupled planning tools tend to overlook the potential of different sectors to support each other and, potentially, increase their overall efficiency and resilience.

This is becoming more important given the growing number of hydropower dams around the world , which if managed synergistically with power systems could facilitate the transition to net-zero carbon, resilient economies and meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals particularly in water-rich developing countries.

The global boom in hydropower dam construction (see Springer)

We must improve our understanding of water-energy interactions and develop new tools to explicitly incorporate them into design and policy formulation.

Significant work is needed to bring together analysis frameworks and tools developed in different sectors for multi-sector applications. For example, with energy and water, the two sectors are modelled at different spatial and temporal scales, belong to different markets and follow different regulatory frameworks. Developing proper water-energy simulators requires diverse skill-sets and, ideally, should also allow considering non-technical impacts including economic, political and social factors.

This is recognised by the FutureDAMS project (funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund, UK Research and Innovation, and supported by the International Institute for Environment and Development).

 

FutureDAMS has brought together experts across UK, Africa and Asia from different disciplines, including system engineering, social sciences, climate modelling, finance and economic analysis and political sciences, to bridge the gap between the river basin and power system and enable their improved joint planning and operation.

River basin and energy system simulation is at the core of the FutureDAMS integrated modelling framework.

FutureDAMS is developing a unique approach and a toolset for engaging its case study stakeholders (Ghana, East Africa Power Pool and Myanmar) in system-scale design and strategic planning.

Initial feedback indicates large potential impacts of the proposed approach. Prof Aung Ze Ya, Yangon Technological University, Myanmar, says “…the FutureDAMS project can address the needs of Myanmar, including the enhancement of capacity building and integrated national planning of water-energy-food-environment systems, to assist the country in planning for a sustainable and resilient future”.

Dr Emmanuel Obuobie from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Ghana, highlights the impact of the project by “…trying to co-optimize among different sectors, leading to better results and solutions, is what we are looking for our region” and Dr Abdulkarim Seid, Deputy Executive Director of the Nile Basin Initiative says that such tools can “…shed light on what kinds of win-win development potential scenarios are available for the Eastern Nile countries”.

Simulation of integrated water-energy systems addresses the challenge of better coordinating different energy and water supplies and demands and allows more equitably and appropriately distributing the benefits of water-energy system development, as demonstrated in one of the research consortium’s first outputs. Ongoing work aims to show how the unique flexibility of hydropower can help integrate more intermittent renewables and increase cross-sector sustainability, flexibility and resilience.

One challenge that the energy-river basin modelling tools aim to tackle is helping stakeholders (e.g., network operators, dam operators, regulators, etc.), who use different terminology and have different interests (i.e., performance criteria), to communicate better and understand each other’s drivers and constraints.

For this purpose, integrated assessment and decision-making techniques are being developed and trialled with FutureDAMS case-study project partners through annual conferences, training workshops and online co-development meetings. The multi-disciplinary research and software development group has developed efficient workflows for giving and receiving feedback on the usability and benefits of the different interconnected modelling and visualisation tools. The project is developing open-source simulation tools and will host them online to increase accessibility of the project’s approaches and tools.

By using open source simulation models and efficient web-based technologies, such as that shown below, the project hopes to create and maintain a free online design platform that project practitioners can continue to use beyond the project’s lifetime.

Example of water-energy system in FutureDAMS online interface (Ghanaian power system in red, Volta river system in Grey).

Linking the energy sector to other resource systems is a grand challenge due to the complexity of each sector and their history of being planned, operated and regulated independently.

The experience of the FutureDAMS project has highlighted the challenge of inter-sectoral design and the need for enhanced communication and understanding between stakeholders. These challenges will need to be overcome if we are to achieve the socio-economic and engineering efficiencies that are within reach via more cooperative and synergistic supply-demand systems.

However recent initiatives, such as the City Water Resilience Approach, offer promising approaches for increasing together the resilience and sustainability of essential services like energy, water and beyond.

With thanks to Mathaios Panteli, Lecturer in Power Systems at University of Manchester,  Eduardo Alejandro Martínez Ceseña, Research Fellow – Whole Energy Systems at University of Manchester, and Professor Julien Harou, Professor of Water Management, Water Engineering Chair, University of Manchester.

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