With a quarter of the world’s human population already living in regions that suffer from severe water scarcity for at least six months of the year, it is perhaps not surprising that the World Economic Forum recently rated water crises as the largest global risk in terms of potential impacts over the next decade.
Electricity generation is a significant consumer of water: it consumes more than five times as much water globally as domestic uses (drinking, preparing food, bathing, washing clothes and dishes, flushing toilets and the rest) and more than five times as much water globally as industrial production.
While electricity generation consumes far less water than food production globally, it is expected that there will be enormous changes in the water demands of electricity over the course of the 21st century. The International Energy Agency projected a rise of 85% in global water use for energy production between 2012 and 2032 alone.
These changes will be driven by a combination of factors. First, human population growth, which is estimated to rise from 7.4 billion people today to between 9.6 to 12.3 billion by 2100. Second, by improvements in access to energy for the 1.4 billion people who currently have no access to electricity and the billion people who currently only have access to unreliable electricity networks. And third, progressive electrification of transport and heating as part of efforts to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Exactly how these changes in the water footprint of electricity are going to play out will depend on the national and international energy policies enacted over the next few decades. Historically, energy policies have been influenced by a multitude of factors (national availability of energy resources, financial costs, reliability of supply, security of supply and the like).
Following on from the Paris COP21 agreement, the carbon footprint of energy should have an increased influence on decision making in the sector. As can be seen from Figure 2, there are considerable differences in the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from different electricity generation technologies (g CO2eq/kWh), with average values ranging from just 4g CO2eq/kWh for hydropower to 1,001g CO2eq/kWh for coal, though there are significant regional and technological variations in values reported for the same energy source.
While it is important to consider these factors in policy making within the energy sector, it would be a wasted opportunity if policy makers were to overlook the other environmental footprints of electricity generation – and in particular the water footprint – when making decisions on which technologies to support and prioritise. The fairest way to compare electricity sources in terms of their water demand, is to consider their lifecycle water footprint – the consumptive demand of water for construction and operation of the plant, fuel supply, waste disposal and site decommissioning, per unit of net energy produced.
As can be seen from Figure 3, there are staggering differences in the water footprint of different electricity generation technologies. Minimum life cycle consumptive water footprints vary from 0.01 litres per kWh for wind energy, to 1.08 litres per kWh for storage-type hydroelectric power, though there are significant regional and technological variations in values reported for the same energy source.
When these differences between sources are scaled up by the number of units of electricity required to meet the needs of the global population, the implications of the global water footprint of energy generation are phenomenal. Failure to plan and consider the water demands of energy will likely result in insecure and unreliable energy supplies and negative effects on the other important users of freshwater.
We have recently observed the impacts of droughts on US energy supplies from thermoelectric plants and hydropower plants. If policy makers fail to take into account the links between energy and water, we may come to a point in many parts of the world where it is water availability that is the main determinant of the energy sources available for use.
This will inevitably force countries to make emergency decisions on the distribution of scarce water between generating electricity or producing food, maintaining health and sanitation, maintaining industrial production, and/or conserving nature.
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Supply chains are currently in crisis. They have been for a long time now, ever since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic reshaped the way the world works. Stressed shipping networks and operational blockages – coupled with China’s insistence on a Covid-zero policy – means that cargo tanker rates are at an all-time high and that there just aren’t enough of them. McDonalds and KFCs in Asia are running out of French fries to sell, not because there aren’t enough potatoes in Idaho, but because there aren’t enough ships to deliver them to Japan or to Singapore from Los Angeles. The war in Ukraine has placed a particular emphasis on food supply chains by disrupting global wheat and sunflower oil supply chains and kicking off distressingly high levels of food price inflation across North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It was against this backdrop that Indonesia announced a complete ban on palm oil exports. That nuclear option shocked the markets, set off a potential new supply chain crisis and has particular implications on future of crude oil pricing and biofuels in Asia.
A brief recap. Like most of Asia, Indonesia has been grappling with food price inflation as consequence of Covid-19. Like most of Asia, Indonesia has been attempting to control this through a combination of shielding its most vulnerable citizens through continued subsidies while attempting to optimise supply chains. Like most of Asia, Indonesia hasn’t been to control the market at all, because uncoordinated attempts across a wide spectrum of countries to achieve a similar level of individual protectionism is self-defeating.
Cooking oil is a major product of sensitive importance in Indonesia, and one that it is self-sufficient in as a result of its status as the world’s largest palm oil producer. So large is Indonesia in that regard that its excess palm oil production has been directed to increasingly higher biodiesel mandates, with a B40 mandate – diesel containing 40% of palm material – originally schedule for full implementation this year. But as palm oil prices started rising to all-time highs at the beginning of January, cooking oil started becoming scarcer in Indonesia. The government blamed hoarding and – wary of the Ramadan period and domestic unrest – implemented a Domestic Market Obligation on palm oil refineries, directing them to devote 20% of projected exports for domestic use. Increasingly stricter terms for the DMO continued over February and March, only for an abrupt U-turn in mid-March that removed the DMO completely. But as the war in Ukraine drove prices even further, Indonesia shocked the market by announcing an total ban on palm oil exports in late April. Chaotically, the ban was first clarified to be palm olein only (straight refining cooking oil), but then flip-flopped into a total ban of crude palm oil as well. Markets went haywire, prices jumped to historical highs and Indonesia’s trading partners reacted with alarm.
Joko Widodo has said that the ban will be indefinite until domestic cooking oil prices ‘moderate’. With the global situation as it is, ‘moderate’ is unlikely to be achieved until the end of 2022 at least, if ‘moderate’ is taken to be the previous level of palm oil prices – roughly half of current pricing. Logistically, Indonesia cannot hold out on the ban for more than two months. Only a third of Indonesia’s monthly palm oil production is consumed domestically; the rest is exported. An indefinite ban means that not only fill storage tanks up beyond capacity and estates forced to let fruit rot, but Indonesia will be missing out on crucial revenue from its crude palm oil export tax. Which is used to fund its biodiesel subsidies.
And that’s where the implications on oil come in. Indonesia’s ham-fisted attempt at protectionism has dire implications on biofuels policies in Asia. Palm oil prices within Indonesia might sink as long as surplus volumes can’t make it beyond the borders, but international palm oil prices will remain high as consuming countries pivot to producers like Malaysia, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, West Africa and Latin America. That in turn, threatens the biodiesel mandates in Thailand and Malaysia. The Thai government has already expressed concern over palm-led food price inflation and associated pressure on its (subsidised) biodiesel programme, launching efforts to mitigate the worst effects. Malaysia – which has a more direct approach to subsidised fuels – is also feeling the pinch. Thailand’s move to B10 and Malaysia’s move to B20 is now in jeopardy; in fact, Thailand has regressed its national mandate from B7 to B5. And the reason is that the differential between the bio- and the diesel portion of the biodiesel is now so disparate that subsidy regimes break down. It would be far cheaper – for the government, the tax-payers and consumers – to use straight diesel instead of biodiesel, as evidenced by Thailand’s reversal in mandates.
That, in turn, has implications on crude pricing. While OPEC+ is stubbornly sticking to its gentle approach to managing global crude supply, the stunning rebound in Asian demand has already kept the consumption side tight to match that supply. Crude prices above US$100/b are a recipe for demand destruction, and Asian economies have been preparing for this by looking at alternatives; biofuels for example. In the past four years, Indonesia has converted some of its oil refineries into biodiesel plants; in China, stricter crude import quotas are paving the way for China to clamp down on its status of a fuels exporter in favour of self-sustainability. But what happens when crude prices are high, but the prices of alternatives are higher? That is the case for palm oil now, where the gasoil-palm spread is now triple the previous average.
Part of this situation is due to market dynamics. Part of it is due to geopolitical effects. But part of it is also due to Indonesia’s knee-jerk reaction. Supply disruption at the level of a blanket ban is always seismic and kicks off a chain of unintended consequences; see the OPEC oil shocks of the 70s. Indonesia’s palm oil export ban is almost at that level. ‘Indefinite’ is a vague term and offers no consolation to markets looking for direction. Damage will be done, even if the ban lasts a month. But the longer it lasts – Indonesian general elections are due in February 2024 – the more serious the consequences could be. And the more the oil and refining industry in Asia will have to think about their preconceived notions of the future of oil in the region.
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