COP22: Addressing the Water-Energy Nexus by empowering solar energy



With one-in-ten people around the world lacking access to safe water and over a billion people without access to electricity, sustainable water and energy production is critical to our planet’s future. And as participants from around the world gather in solar energy, Morocco for the 22nd Conference of Parties (COP22), solutions to the the water-energy nexus must remain part of the global agenda.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), energy production alone accounts for some 15 percent of the world’s total water withdrawal, which amounts to an estimated 580 billion cubic meters of freshwater per year. To put that number into perspective: global energy generation now consumes enough water per year to fill about 232 million Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Looking at it in the context of energy demand in the Middle East and Africa in particular, the management of water resources will be critical to sustainably driving growth in the regions’ generation capacity. Water is a finite resource and its use in electricity production should be managed through a diversified power generation portfolio that minimizes water usage.

Sunlight, on the other hand, is an abundant resource and, if effectively harnessed, can help mitigate some of the impact on our water resources. Photovoltaic (PV) solar energy is one of only two electricity generation technologies – the other being wind – with comparatively negligible water consumption. With over 13,500 megawatts(MW) of modules installed worldwide, First Solar technology alone helps saving over 24 billion liters of water per year.

PV energy systems provide a sustainable solution to the water-energy nexus by generating clean electricity for 25+ years with little to no water use. As a matter of fact, most of the water consumed at our operational power plants is used to ensure that workers onsite stay hydrated. Additionally, as our experience in the Middle East has shown, wet cleaning isn’t necessary to maintain production efficiencies, further reducing water consumption.

On a lifecycle basis, PV also consumes less water than most other power generation sources, including hydrocarbon-based technologies and biofuels, in the production process. With the smallest carbon footprint, lowest life cycle water use, and fastest energy payback time in the industry, thin-film PV modules provide a sustainable solution to climate change, water scarcity, and energy security. We have further reduced lifecycle water use by reusing water during manufacturing, implementing advanced site preparation techniques to reduce dust generation during project construction and using dry methods for module cleaning in dust-prone climates.

Another dimension of the water-energy nexus becomes apparent when looking at the possibilities of generating fresh water beyond exploiting conventional water sources. Fresh water production via water desalination is already an essential requirement for many arid and water-scarce regions globally. The direct combination of photovoltaics with reverse-osmosis operations to desalinate sea- or brackish water offers a viable and environmentally friendly cost-effective way to release additional water resources.

As our energy needs continue to grow, so too will our use of water to generate it. The World Bank – which launched its ‘Thirsty Energy’ initiative to highlight the issue – predicted that while global energy consumption will increase by 35 percent by 2035, water consumption will increase by an alarming 85 percent during the same period of time.

With this in mind, it will be important for decision makers in Marrakech next week to attempt to respond to the issue in real, collaborative terms that will deliver tangible results.

At First Solar, we pledge to continuously innovate and to contribute to our partners’ and customers’ efforts to conserve our most precious resources, while efficiently harnessing our most abundant one – sunlight.

Andreas Wade, director of sustainability, First Solar