9 item(s) found.

Decarbonization of Electricity Production

Decarbonization of Electricity Production

What problems have been experienced with the integration of intermittent renewables in the electric grid? How easy is it to find a quick solution? What can we learn from the experience of the Energiewende in Germany? What is the problem to be tackled? This Uncomfortable Knowledge Hub (UKH) series consists of one teaser video and one video lecture reflecting on the experience done in Germany and in Spain with alternative intermittent sources of electricity. One longer publication resource is also available at the end of this webpage.

What is uncomfortable knowledge?

Uncomfortable knowledge is a concept introduced by Steve Rayner*. As Rayner puts it: “to make sense of the complexity of the world so that they can act, individuals and institutions need to develop simplified, self-consistent versions of that world”. The chosen, self-consistent narratives and explanations necessarily leave out some relevant aspects of the issue in order to remain simple and useful. In this situation “knowledge which is in tension or outright contradiction with those versions must be expunged. This is uncomfortable knowledge which is excluded from policy debates, especially when dealing with ‘wicked problems’”.

*Steve Rayner, 2012. Uncomfortable knowledge: the social construction of ignorance in science and environmental policy discourses. Economy and Society 41(1): 107-125.

What is quantitative storytelling?

Quantitative storytelling (QST), the systematic approach used to present material on the Uncomfortable Knowledge Hub, does not claim to present the “truth” about a given issue, nor that all the numbers used in the story are uncontested. When dealing with wicked issues, all numbers can always be calculated in a different way and narratives are always contested. QST simply presents alternative stories useful to check the quality of existing narratives and to enrich the diversity of insights about a given issue.


Electricity is not behaving as a “normal good” in the market: Electricity is special (1 min 46 sec)

Electricity is not behaving as a “normal good” in the market: Electricity is special. The problem with producing and selling electricity is the same as the problem of producing and selling ice creams. Unless you have an effective storage system (a fridge for the ice creams), the matching of demand and supply can prove problematic.

Intermittent alternative sources of electricity: Batteries not included (15 min 18 sec)

Because of the special nature of electricity as energy form, kWh of electricity that are produced must match both in space and time kWh of electricity that are consumed. This entails that it is not true that all kWh of electricity are “the same” independently of the time and place of production. Intermittent sources of electricity are “problematic” sources of energy and they need storage capacity in order to meet current expectations.


Teams Involved

Energy Directives

09 October 2019

Energy Directives

UAB Team


The EU is a global leader in seeking to mitigate climate change by reducing GHG emissions, a position won first through being ahead of the curve in cutting emissions and setting relatively ambitious new targets, and now buttressed by more unified climate diplomacy efforts (efforts in Paris and afterward to improve decarbonization and ‘bend the curve’ on climate change, creating a downward trajectory in future emissions. On neither climate nor energy policy are, however, all European voices perfectly in sync. In academic and policy arenas, the existence of a systemic problem affecting the quality of the scientific input used in the process of decision making is currently flagged. In fact, when the analysis of the performance of an energy system, regulated by an energy directive, has to be integrated within a larger characterization of its performance, which includes water, food, land use, social aspects and environmental impact, it becomes evident that current models (based on traditional economic theory) are simplistic. These simplifications imply a systemic neglect of key information that would be relevant for the other elements of the nexus.

The aim of this policy-case is therefore twofold: the first objective self-evidently speaks to the debates regarding the robustness and usefulness of the scientific evidence used to inform policy; the second objective speaks to a growing interest in transdisciplinary research, or co-production of knowledge, that supports science-policy interfaces bridging academic and policy arenas.


Methodological Approach


Our analysis is based on Quantitative Story-Telling (QST), a hybrid qualitative and quantitative tool, proposing a new way of using scientific analysis in the process of decision-making.  It is an alternative to the concept of evidence-based policy.  The general iterative schema of QST includes several steps: the first step is to identify stories, or narratives, about situations, problems and solutions (through text analysis and interviews); then selected relevant narratives, validated though meetings with policy-makers, are quantitatively represented with MuSIASEM. Lastly, the results are presented and then the feedbacks received are used to eventually run another cycle of QST. 




Four main narratives have been identified in the current policy discourse and analysed in MAGIC:

  1. Transition to renewable energies. Europe needs to increase the share of renewable energy by using more solar and wind energy. This is environmentally necessary to fight climate change by reducing CO2 emissions and is socially and economically desirable. 
  2. Intermittency challenge. Intermittency of supply is a key challenge limiting the greater use of solar and wind energy. More efficient storage systems are a key enabling technological innovation that will have to contribute to solving the problem of intermittency. 
  3. Energy efficiency narrative. Energy efficiency is a means to achieve energy security and decarbonize the economy. Energy savings from efficiency have the potential of being the first fuel. 
  4. Outsourcing challenge. Outsourcing leads to the externalisation of productive activities and their associated environmental impacts. In making and assessing energy policy, these macroeconomic dynamics need to be considered. If industrial production is outsourced to China and other countries, GHG emissions are not reduced but just geographically relocated.

For more information about the selected narratives, see this report.


Main Findings


The full report on ‘Narratives behind Energy Directives’ is available as Deliverable 5.4. The main findings are summarized below:


Is a deep decarbonisation of the EU’s electricity system by 2050 feasible and viable?

To ensure that the intermittent electricity generated from renewable sources is dispatchable at all times, grid flexibility needs to be improved. One possible way is through curtailment: this implies installing more renewable capacity than what is needed, and only using the electricity produced when it is needed. Another way is by storing excessive electricity when it is produced. Both methods are associated with GHG emissions: curtailment requires the construction of large amounts of power capacity, and the manufacturing of storage technologies is not carbon neutral.

We modelled two pathways for the decarbonisation of the EU’s power sector to 2050, the first with high curtailment and the second with high storage. In both pathways, cumulative GHG emissions up to 2050 do not decrease in line with EU climate targets, but amount to 21-24 Gt of CO2 equivalent, which is approximately 25% of the total carbon budget available to the EU up to 2100.


Figure 1. GHG emissions in the LSHC (left) and HSLC (right scenario, broken down into operational (flows, green line) and infrastructural (funds, blue line).


Find out more:

POLICY BRIEF: Decarbonisation of electricity: Is a deep decarbonisation of the EU’s electricity system by 2050 feasible and viable?

SCIENTIFIC PAPER: Di Felice LJ, Ripa M & Giampietro M (2018), 'Deep decarbonisation from a biophysical perspective: GHG emissions of a renewable electricity transformation in the EU. Sustainability, vol. 10, no. 3685. https://doi.org/10.3390/su10103685


What does renewable energy’s intermittent nature mean for the energy system, and do we know how to model it?

Adding storage to the discussion of renewable energy futures, it is important to ask how much storage would be needed in an electricity sector dominated by intermittent sources. We consider the cases of Germany and Spain. In both countries, the installed power capacity of intermittent renewables has been growing steadily over the past years. As shown in the figure below, however, this increase has not led to a reduction in conventional power capacity. Using detailed monthly data for the two countries, we checked how much storage would be needed in 2050 in a 100% intermittent electricity system, by calculating the worst annual hypothetical “failure event” – i.e., the longest time stretch during which each country would need to rely on storage only for electricity needs.

The results show that the energy gap would be of the order of 14 TWh in Germany and 6 TWh in Spain. In practical terms, this means that if each country were to use battery energy storage to cover this gap, the manufacturing of the batteries alone would generate emissions that are of the same order of what each country emits on a yearly basis.


Figure 2. Growth in power capacities over time during the Spanish (left) and German (right) renewable energy transition.


Find out more:

VIDEO: What purposes do intermittent renewables serve?

UNCOMFORTABLE KNOWLEDGE LECTURE SERIES: Decarbonization of Electricity Production

POLICY BRIEF: Intermittent renewable energy: What does renewable energy’s intermittent nature mean for the energy system, and do we know how to model it?

SCIENTIFIC PAPER: Renner A & Giampietro M (2020), 'Socio-technical discourses of European electricity decarbonization: Contesting narrative credibility and legitimacy with quantitative story-telling', Energy Research & Social Science, vol. 59, article 101279. DOI: 10.1016/j.erss.2019.101279.

PRESS RELEASE: La Vanguardia, 18/11/2019 (in Spanish)


What are the factors affecting the possible definitions of “efficiency” of an economy?

According to the narrative endorsed in the policy, energy efficiency is a means to: (i) achieve energy security; (ii) decarbonize the economy; and (iii) improve the competitiveness of industry in the Union. In this narrative, energy savings from efficiency have the potential of being the first fuel, reducing dependency on energy imports and scarce energy resources, as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and thereby mitigating climate change. However, when it comes to selecting efficiency targets, it becomes clear that the popularity of the concept of “efficiency” is partly due to its simple nature: a generic call for “doing more with less”. Any quantitative implementation of this semantic message is problematic in a real-world situation, particularly when efficiency is the mechanism by which other objectives are delivered rather than the end in itself.

A critical overview of the different definitions of energy efficiency has been carried out, and the factors affecting the possible definitions of “efficiency” of an economy identified (Figure 4). These factors include: (i) the degree of openness of the energy sector, (ii) the mix of primary energy sources and energy carriers used in society, (iii) the mix of economic activities carried out, (iv) a selective externalization of economic activities (imports of goods and services), and (v) credit leverage and quantitative easing boosting the GDP. The latter is crucial due to the massive financialization of the economy using credit leverage (fueled by quantitative easing) to boost the GDP independently from the actual production of biophysical goods. Sustaining the consumption of imported goods by generating higher debt levels is an effective way of reducing the perceived biophysical/energy input required by an economy.

Figure 3. The different factors affecting the energy and carbon intensity of an economy.


Find out more:

VIDEO: How should we measure efficiency?

VIDEO: The paradox of energy efficiency

UNCOMFORTABLE KNOWLEDGE LECTURE SERIES: Energy Efficiency: A Treacherous Concept

SCIENTIFIC PAPER: Dunlop T. (2019), 'Mind the gap: A social sciences review of energy efficiency', Energy Research & Social Science, vol. 56, article 101216, doi: 10.1016/j.erss.2019.05.026.

SCIENTIFIC PAPER: Velasco-Fernández R, Dunlop T & Giampietro M (2020), 'Fallacies of energy efficiency indicators: Recognizing the complexity of the metabolic pattern of the economy', Energy Policy, vol. 137, article 111089, doi: 10.1016/j.enpol.2019.111089.

NEXUS TIMES: Issue II, Efficiency Paradox (September 2017).


Decoupling or delusion? Measuring GHG emissions displacement

The Paris Agreement, established in October of 2016, pledges that countries will limit global temperatures to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, with an aim to keep the rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius. While the Paris agreement has worked to reduce GHG emissions, both developed and developing are attempting to maintain their economic growth at sustainable rates: the idea is that we can continue growing our economies while reducing total carbon emissions to a safe level (aka decoupling).

Nevertheless, substantial outsourcing of production from industrial countries may create an illusion of decoupling. In MAGIC, we take a biophysical multi-scalar approach to model the outsourcing of GHG and energy as well as other nexus elements. Through a multi-scalar approach, we argue that the effects of outsourcing of the extraction of primary energy sources and conversion to energy carriers cannot be neglected and deserve much closer attention in order to better inform policy-making.

Building on the concept of virtual and embodied inputs and outputs in imports, we refer to externalized GHG emissions as GHG emissions embodied in the direct energy imports (e.g. emissions from coal extraction needed to produce the electricity that is imported). We calculated what would be needed if the importing countries had produced all their energy carries (EC) domestically. The focus is here placed only on the energy commodities metabolized by countries to produce energy carriers (electricity, heat, fuel) and exported within the timeframe 2009-2015. This implies that the externalized emissions referring to imported manufactured goods, that could much more important, were not accounted for.

When looking at Figure 5, some degree of decoupling appears to have taken place over the period of analysis, with GHG emissions decreased domestically in almost all the analyzed EU countries (positive values of the bars). However, the picture is different if we consider the effect of the externalized emissions: countries have reduced their carbon footprint locally (positive values) but increased it abroad (negative values of the bars). This is due to changes in the mix and uses of energy carrier and in the terms of trade.

Figure 4. Breakdown of GHG emissions allocated to the three ECs supply, including exports.
Positive emissions are taking place inside the borders, negative emissions are those externalized through imports


Find out more:

POLICY BRIEF: Decoupling at a glance: Counter evidence from outsourcing

SCIENTIFIC PAPER: The energy metabolism of post-industrial economies. A framework to account for externalization across scales

NEXUS TIMES: Ripa, M., Di Felice, L. What if energy imports mattered? ISSUE IV: OUTSOURCING (March 2018)

Teams Involved

The Water-Energy Nexus Issue

The Water-Energy Nexus Issue

The Magic Nexus team

There is an increasing demand for energy to alleviate water scarcity pressures, and, vice-versa, a growing water footprint required to produce many energy forms – including new energy technologies. The governance of water and energy then is crucial if we are to safely manage these finite resources into the future.

In our first article, Zora Kovacic explores the origins of the term ‘nexus’ from its original use spearheaded by the food and beverage industry as part of the ‘green growth’ agenda, to become attached to applications as diverse as water modelling to multidisciplinary social-ecological systems analysis initiatives today. She uses the context of these varied applications to question whether the ‘nexus’ concept will help or hinder future water governance efforts.

Broaching the topic of hidden water flows, Maddalena Ripa and Violeta Cabello crunch the numbers to investigate the characteristics and size of an often invisible, yet important water flow – non-consumptive use in the energy sector.  These authors highlight the shortcomings and challenges in quantifying water flows in the energy sector today, and break down the sectors that are not – and should be - properly accounted for. The article then explains how we can improve water governance using better-defined and more comprehensive accounting methods.

Finally, Juan de La Fuente and Baltasar Peñate explore the topic of desalination as a water-energy nexus technology in the Canary Islands, Spain. These authors explain how this controversial technology, known for its large energy footprint, is a viable technology in cases where renewable energy sources are readily available. They show how the Canary Islands archipelago has alleviated its water scarcity problem using desalination technologies, thanks to solar and wind resources available in the area together with effective management to balance costs, energy availability and environmental effects.

We hope you enjoy this our final issue for 2018. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive future issues coming in 2019. You can subscribe at the bottom of the homepage https://magic-nexus.eu/.

The origins of the “nexus”: a water governance concern

10 December 2018

The origins of the “nexus”: a water governance concern

Zora Kovacic

The “nexus” has become a buzzword (Cairns & Krzywoszynska, 2016), used in many different contexts for many different purposes. It indicates the interlinked nature of resource management, and is used as an inclusive tool to address environmental, climatic and land use issues. The most popular formulation of the nexus refers to “water, energy and food”, but the term is used with reference to a broad range of topics. In this article, we trace back the emergence of the term “nexus” and ask: what did the concept mean to achieve?  The term “nexus” hails from the water community, and although it may be seen as a means to articulate concerns and policy priorities of actors involved in water governance, we also show that the term was used in many different ways from the onset.

The term “nexus” was put forward by the '2030 Water Resources Group', which was founded in 2008 and brought together companies from the food and beverage industry, including the likes of the Barilla Group, Coca-Cola Company, Nestlé, SABMiller, PepsiCo, New Holland Agriculture, Standard Chartered Bank and Syngenta AG (Leese and Meisch, 2015). The idea of a “water-energy  nexus” was mainstreamed through the Bonn2011 conference organized by the World Economic Forum Water Initiative. In its early formulations, the nexus was tied to business concerns of a variety of corporations, whose interests ranged from securing access to water resources, to using water resources “efficiently”. Shaped in this way, the nexus has been presented as a means to ensure economic growth that is compatible with resource availability, which Leese and Meisch link to the green growth agenda.

The nexus has also received considerable attention from modellers. Shannak and colleagues (2018) provide an overview of the models that analyse the nexus, and find that most modelling efforts are centred on water. Such models include: the Water Evaluation and Planning Model (WEAP); the Global Policy Dialogue Model developed by the International Water Management Institute; the “water energy and food security nexus” developed by Hoff (2011), which is centred on water availability; the Climate, Land, Energy and Water Strategies (CLEWS) that estimates the suitability of different crops and biofuels under rain-fed and irrigated conditions for current and future climates; the “Diagnostic tool for investment in water for agriculture and energy” developed by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. Water is often an “invisible” input needed to produce other goods, such as food, or used in production processes that require cooling, washing, etc. The “virtual water” approach also highlights the importance of taking into account water uses embedded in other products. For this reason, modelling the nexus can be seen as a useful tool to give visibility to water use.

Also with regard to public policy at the European level, the term “nexus” can be found in the realm of water governance. For instance, the MAGIC project responds to the call “WATER-2b-2015 - Integrated approaches to food security, low-carbon energy, sustainable water management and climate change mitigation” which asks proposals to “develop a better scientific understanding of the land-water-energy-climate nexus” (https://cordis.europa.eu/programme/rcn/664566_en.html).

The term “nexus” has emerged in policy and academic parlance as recently as the early 2010s, and it has been a buzzword almost from the onset.  The term does not necessarily lack definitional clarity. Rather,  it is associated with many definitions and used in many contexts. Some see the nexus as yet another rehearsal of older debates about interdisciplinary research, questioning the novelty of the idea. We suggest that the popularity of the term may in some ways help meet the aim of rendering water use more visible, and mainstreaming resource management in business practices. At the same time, the term “nexus” may acquire a life of its own, becoming a new problem in need of governing, requiring new metrics and models, and new institutional arrangements that make it possible to work “across silos”. As the nexus becomes an issue in its own right, it may or may not be a good ally to water governance.


Cairns, R., & Krzywoszynska, A. (2016). Anatomy of a buzzword: The emergence of ‘the water-energy-food nexus’ in UK natural resource debates. Environmental Science & Policy, 64, 164-170.

Leese, M., & Meisch, S. (2015). Securitising sustainability? Questioning the'water, energy and food-security nexus'. Water Alternatives, 8(1).

Shannak, S., Mabrey, D., & Vittorio, M. (2018). Moving From Theory to Practice in the Water-Energy-Food Nexus: An Evaluation of Existing Models and Frameworks. Water-Energy Nexus, April 2018.

VIDEO: The paradox of energy efficiency

Water for energy: quantifying the massive amounts of water that go unaccounted for

14 November 2018

Water for energy: quantifying the massive amounts of water that go unaccounted for

Maddalena Ripa & Violeta Cabello

Water and energy systems are inextricably linked. According to the Energy Efficiency Directive (European Parliament, 2012), the water sector consumes up to 3.5% of EU’s electricity for purposes such as water treatment, pumping or desalination. Similarly, water is essential for cooling power plants, for the generation of electricity and the production of bio-fuels, and for the the extraction, mining, processing, refining and disposal of fossil-fuel residues.The International Energy Agency projected an 85% rise in global demand growth in water use for energy production between 2012 and 2032 alone (IEA, 2017)./p>

These changes are driven by a combination of factors. First among these is human population growth, which is estimated to rise from 7.4 billion people today to  between 9.6 and 12.3 billion by 2100. Another important factor is the 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. Last but not least, the progressive electrification of transport and heating as part of efforts to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions is expected to be a key driver in the surge of water consumption (The Conversation, 2016). While it is important to consider these factors in policy making, it is equally important to establish an adequate accounting framework to assess the viability of increments in the use of water by the energy sector. In this article we discuss some conceptual and methodological challenges we encountered when searching for European energy and water statistics.

Water for energy: accounting gaps in Eurostat

The challenge of data availability at relevant spatio-temporal scales for analyzing the water-energy nexus is well documented (Larsen and Drews, 2019). While in general energy systems can be considered to be well-monitored, the availability of integrated data sets covering water and energy domains is often severely limited at the relevant levels of aggregation in relation to nexus calculations, that is, beyond the site-specific level. Water and energy accounting are poorly harmonized in European statistics. Eurostat accounts for only one water-energy relation, the use of water for electricity generation (Eurostat, 2012). This broad category encompasses water use for cooling and the rest of water use for electricity production, without specifying the types of electricity production systems. While water for cooling accounts for a relevant share of water uses in some European countries, other relevant uses of water along the energy supply chain are neglected by Eurostat. For instance, fossil fuel extraction and processing are assimilated within the broader ‘mining and quarrying’ category, hindering nexus analysis. Water for biofuel crops and processing are included in the agriculture and manufacturing sectors, respectively.

Water for energy: consumptive vs non-consumptive uses

In order to better inform decision-makers, care should be taken to understand the differences between water use, water withdrawal (or water abstraction*), water consumption, and what the categories represent (Kohli et al., 2010). In this regard, two additional conceptual considerations are noteworthy. First, while Eurostat distinguishes between water abstraction/withdrawal** and water uses (European Environment Agency, 2018), the separation between consumptive and non-consumptive*** water uses is not included in the statistics. In fact, most water used for cooling purposes is non consumptive. This means that water is either recycled or returned to water bodies after use. A small share of withdrawn water is evaporated (consumed) along the cooling chain, falling into the consumptive use category. Second, hydroelectricity is excluded from the accounting because it is an in-situ use (Eurostat 2014, p. 43). However, hydroelectricity does also evaporate water (consumptive uses) and uses tremendous volumes in a non-consumptive manner.


Figure 1 - Water use for energy production in European countries 2012 (m3/p.c).

The quantitative multi-scale approach used in MAGIC allows maintaining the distinction between green water, consumptive blue-water and non-consumptive blue-water. In particular, in a recent report of the MAGIC project (Ripoll-Bosch and Giampietro 2018), we calculated water use for the energy sector in different European countries (Germany, France, Italy, Romania, Spain, Sweden and United Kingdom). The water consumed for refineries, evaporated during electricity production and biofuel crop irrigation, as well as the water used in the mining and extraction of Primary Energy Sources (which can be contaminated due to acid mine drainage), was considered to be consumptive. The water for cooling and for hydropower (excluding the water evaporated during the process) was accounted for as non-consumptive.

Figure 2 - Contribution of different processe to the non-consumptive water share (%)

If this distinction between consumptive and non-consumptive water uses for energy supply is introduced, and hydroelectricity is included in the accounting, the resulting picture for European countries is quite interesting: Most water uses for energy supply fall within the non-consumptive category (figure 1). Within this category, the pattern significantly varies among countries depending on how much hydroelectricity they have developed (figure 2). When looking at the consumptive share (figure 3), electricity generation is still the largest water consumer in all analysed countries. Whereas this share looks negligible in comparison to non-consumptive uses, it gains relevance when contrasted with other consumptive uses such as water for agriculture or households.

Figure 3 - Contribution of different processes to the consumptive water share (%).

The announced expansion of electrification will generate competition for water not only between sectors, but also between different consumptive and non-consumptive uses of water in energy generation. Moreover, the impacts of increments in electricity demand on surface water bodies need to be evaluated against the disaggregated contribution of different energy supply processes. Therefore, it is imperative to advance to a more comprehensive water-energy nexus accounting framework that can quantify and characterize all water uses together across sectors.


*Eurostat (2014, p. 43) defines water abstraction as ‘Water removed from any source, either permanently or temporarily. Mine water and drainage water are included. Water abstractions from groundwater resources in any given time period are defined as the difference between the total amount of water withdrawn from aquifers and the total amount charged artificially or injected into aquifers. Water abstractions from precipitation (e.g. rain water collected for use) should be included under abstractions from surface water. The amounts of water artificially charged or injected are attributed to abstractions from that water resource from which they were originally withdrawn. Water used for hydroelectricity generation is an in-situ use and should be excluded.’

**Groundwater abstraction is the process of taking water from a ground source, either temporarily or permanently (European Environment Agency, 2018).

***A use of water is consumptive if that water is not immediately available for another use. Losses to sub-surface seepage and evapotranspiration are considered consumptive, as the water that is polluted or degraded to insufficient quality for reuse. Water that can be immediately treated or directly returned to water bodies in a continuous loop is considered non-consumptive. Therefore, a non-consumptive use is when water use does not diminish the source or impair the future water use.


European Environment Agency, 2018. Groundwater abstraction [WWW Document]. URL https://www.eea.europa.eu/themes/water/wise-help-centre/glossary-definitions/groundwater-abstraction (accessed 11.2.18).

European Parliament, 2012. Directive 2012/27/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 October 2012 on energy efficiency. Off. J. Eur. Union Dir. 1–56. doi:10.3000/19770677.L_2012.315.eng

Eurostat, 2014. Data Collection Manual for the OECD/Eurostat Joint Questionnaire on Inland Waters. Version 3.0. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/documents/1798247/6664269/Data+Collection+Manual+for+the+OECD_Eurostat+Joint+Questionnaire+on+Inland+Waters+%28version+3.0%2C+2014%29.pdf/f5f60d49-e88c-4e3c-bc23-c1ec26a01b2a

Eurostat, 2015. Annual detailed enterprise statistics for industry (NACE Rev. 2, B-E) [WWW Document].

Eurostat, 2012. Water use by supply category and economical sector (env_wat_cat) [WWW Document]. URL http://appsso.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/nui/show.do?dataset=env_wat_cat&lang=en

International Energy Agency, 2017. World Energy Outlook 2017.

Kohli, A., Frenken, K., Spottorno, C., 2010. Disambiguation of water use statistics 1.

Larsen, M.A.D., Drews, M., 2019. Water use in electricity generation for water-energy nexus analyses: The European case. Sci. Total Environ. 651, 2044–2058. doi:10.1016/J.SCITOTENV.2018.10.045

The Conversation, 2016. Energy sector is one of the largest consumers of water in a drought-threatened world [WWW Document]. URL https://theconversation.com/energy-sector-is-one-of-the-largest-consumers-of-water-in-a-drought-threatened-world-59109 (accessed 10.31.18).

Ripoll-Bosch and Giampietro (Editors). 2018. Report on EU socio-ecological systems. MAGIC (H2020–GA 689669) Project Deliverable 4.2. 31 March 2018. Available at: https://www.magic-nexus.eu/documents/d42-report-eu-socio-ecological-systems

Is Shale Gas Dead?

Is Shale Gas Dead?

Cristina Madrid-Lopez

It’s been a rough ride for the shale gas sector. The market boomed in 2008 shortly after natural gas prices reached USD $6 per million BTU ($/MMBTU). Then, lower gas-prices during 2014-2016 marked what many considered the beginning of the end of the shale gas extraction era – producers could hardly afford the high costs of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing at a time when prices were close to USD $2/MMBTU. But then, as prices inched up in mid-2018 to USD $3/MMBTU, there was a mixed reaction. While shale gas enthusiasts regained optimism about the sector’s future and its potential contributions to energy policy objectives, critics were and still are skeptical of its potential due to the impacts and financial costs of extraction. With such uncertainty then, is there cause for optimism for shale gas, or is the market facing a bleak future?

Finding consensus on the answer to this question is going to be difficult because shale gas extraction is a component of what Stephenson has called “the fracking phenomenon”. In other words, “fracking” is a complex issue and as Roger Strand has put it, it is more useful to accept that some questions might not have one straight answer, but many valid ones. And that is fine.

Considering different answers as valid is not the same as falling into vague or “unscientific” methods. Analysts that follow the principles of Post-Normal Science (PNS) often use the same tools as other scientists and take into account factors other than facts, such as people’s perceptions and knowledge. Consequently, they do not look at quantitative results as an absolute truth but understand them as the final step of an analytical process influenced by a (mostly social) context.


The Bioeconomics view

Bioeconomics is a useful lens with which to understand the energy and material flows associated with a productive activity such as shale gas extraction. Figure 1 maps the productivity of all wells in Pennsylvania, US, at different ages where three main stages can be observed. During the early stage of drilling and fracturing, productivity increases. At the same time, the adverse impacts on water, air and land and the local population also increase. During the production phase, the well is capable of providing enough gas to recover production costs and the environmental impacts are usually minimal. Finally at the decay stage, gas production is too low to provide benefits and adverse impacts are usually the result of a lack of proper maintenance.


Figure 1: Average productivity and life stages of a shale gas well (from Madrid-Lopez, under review)


The point at which a well leaves the production stage and enters the decay stage is determined by the price of the gas. Clearly, once a well enters the decay stage, the gas company might prefer to plug it up and open another one, creating a more significant impact on land and water ecosystems. In a situation of lower gas prices, the production stage is minimized. The shale gas sector can only maintain a regular level of daily production if the number of wells (and their impacts) are increasing.


The Geopolitical view

When shale gas is saved for the times when gas prices are higher, however, the production of natural gas decreases, endangering the energy security of the producer. Wood Mackenzie reports that China’s shale gas extraction has doubled since 2016 and that, despite the relatively higher costs of shale gas development in China, the government’s commitment to the sector is grounded in energy security and geostrategic reasons. Since mid-2016 the sector’s productivity in the US has increased again, even when prices are close to USD $4/MMBTU which is about the average cost of production in the US. The Trump administration has heavily supported shale gas producers in Pennsylvania and other states, partly in order to fulfill local-development campaign promises that made Pennsylvania swing from a Democrat to a Republican majority state and partly to maintain a strong influence over the world energy market.

With Dutch natural gas reserves close to exhaustion and the international relations between Europe’s main gas provider, Russia, and the European Union in a critical moment, being a trade partner of Europe sounds like an appealing option for exporting countries. Consequently, despite low gas prices and high environmental and social impacts, governments might choose to promote shale gas development for strategic reasons.


Power relations and public participation

Power relations play an important role in defining political agendas and, consequently, what actions are taken. Trade-offs between global, national and local strategic policies are very important to determine the future of shale gas development. It can be argued that the high income states of New England in the US suffers from a global scale ‘NIMBY’ effect, meaning that they benefit from a regular and low-cost gas supply, while extraction has been banned in most of the state.

In order to ensure that the analysis that we are carrying out will provide answers to questions that are relevant for stakeholders, the obvious step is to involve them in the analysis. Traditionally, public participation is included in research either to gather information about a case study prior to the analysis or to gather feedback afterwards. In MAGIC, public participation is also included before the design of the analytical method. Thus, in the WP6 case study on shale gas we include a consultation to key actors in the European Commission.


Innovation to policy

Shale gas fracking can be viewed from different perspectives, as discussed here with framings from Bioeconomics or Geopolitics. What does this mean in terms of policy measures, and more broadly for the governance of innovations? The contribution of technological innovations to policy objectives is uncertain but can nevertheless be studied. Some have argued that having shale gas at hand will delay the energy transition to renewables. However, natural gas, due to its market-readiness and its potential for use in decentralized systems, has been proposed as an energy source that can contribute to achieving a Low Carbon Economy.

Shale gas development might not have the potential to make a major contribution to climate or energy policy. However, it has a high geopolitical value. It would be wise for Europeans to keep an eye on its mid-term development in the current scenario of fracturing diplomatic relations among the major external gas providers, which happen to coincide with the depletion and closure of one of Europe’s most productive gas fields, the Groningen field in the Netherlands.

What if energy imports mattered?

27 March 2018

What if energy imports mattered?

Maddalena Ripa & Louisa Jane Di Felice

During the past few hundred years, growing numbers of people have obtained their energy from further and further afar, and supply has become inextricably linked to distant locations and events, expanding the spatial and temporal chain linking energy supply to demand. This is particularly true of oil, but also of all the other energy sources that can be moved across borders: coal, electricity, natural gas, and nuclear fuel (Overland, 2016). In 2012, the EU imported 53% of all the energy it consumed, at a cost of more than €1 billion per day. Looking at energy imports reveals how the decline in energy use per unit of GDP (i.e., Economic Energy Intensity) in EU advanced economies is not necessarily because they have become much more efficient in terms of energy and resources use, but because they increasingly rely on other countries to fulfil their supply of primary energy sources. Energy makes up more than 20% of total EU imports - a fifth of the EU's total import bill (European Commission, 2018). Implicit in the import of energy products is the indirect import of labour and resources, such as water and primary energy sources, embodied in the production process and transport of these products.

Specifically, the EU imports:

  • 88% of its crude oil
  • 66% of its natural gas
  • 42% of its solid fuels
  • less than 4% of its renewables (mostly concentrated on biomass)
  • 95% of its uranium

If we consider embodied fossil energy imports (also known as ‘virtual imports’), as for example the oil embedded in the import of diesel, the gap between fossil energy consumption and production (one traditional measure of energy security) in the EU is even larger than commonly assumed. This has prompted the MAGIC project to investigate the narrative of energy security as a nationally bounded imperative.

Figure 1. Percentage of fossil primary energy sources outsourced abroad – direct import in orange and virtual import in dark red
(DE – Germany, ES – Spain, FR – France, IT – Italy, NL – Netherlands, RO – Romania, SE – Sweden, UK – United Kingdom). More details available in MAGIC Deliverable 4.2.

MAGIC research has shown that the percentage of fossil primary energy sources directly and indirectly outsourced is higher than 80% in all most EU countries: Figure 1 shows the percentages of outsourced fossil primary energy sources, including coal, oil, gas produced outside the country, directly and indirectly required (virtual) to produce the total energy metabolized by UK, Sweden, Romania, Netherlands, Italy, France, Spain and Germany. 

Misrepresenting the share of inputs sourced from foreign suppliers can introduce a significant bias in the analysis. Indeed, the level of outsourcing of economic sectors heavily affects their performance. A country outsourcing the production of inputs that are particularly “costly” in terms of resources or labour requirement may appear more efficient than a country producing its own input.

In the EU, similar to other global economies, pressure for greater energy self-sufficiency is rooted in the narrative of preventing major supply disruptions (European Energy Security Strategy, 2014). This means that broader discourses on the socio-economic implications of the energy globalized trade are systematically ignored.


Figure 2. Percentages of working hours employed to produce the energy metabolized (directly and indirectly) by eight EU countries.
The blue part of the bar shows the percentage of working hours employed locally, whilst the red part of the bar expresses the outsourced percentage.

Figure 2 shows the percentage of labour (one key nexus element in MAGIC analysis) that is directly and indirectly required and outsourced (red bar) to produce the energy needed to sustain the country. This percentage is comparatively high and for some EU countries (e.g., Spain and Netherlands) it is higher that the local labour investment. In addition, the missing nexus link is that the EU workers whose job is moved offshore do not stop using energy, even if they become permanently unemployed or retire as a result of the change. And the beneficiary of the job transfer offshore will use more energy, as the accompanying increase in income translates into a standard of living that affords more consumer goods, and possibly a move to lower deinsity housing.


Table 1. Origin of oil imports (in %) for selected EU countries
(Regions of origin: RER -Europe , RU – Russia, RAF – Africa, RNA – North America, RLA – Latin America, RMS – Middle East, RAS – Asia and the Pacific)

Labour is an essential but often neglected nexus element that is of paramount importance to study the broader socio-economic implications of EU economies and provide trans-disciplinary insights. For example, Table 1 shows the origins of EU oil imports. The largest share of oil is derived from developing countries, where low income and illegal, low security jobs pose ethical issues that are not adequately tackled by the current EU legislation.

Globalization has demonstrated an unexpected ability ‘to manage the non-resolution of its problems, accommodate its dysfunctions, even drawing renewed strength from this state of affairs’ (Barca, 2017). These side-effects are serious and, if left unchecked, will impose limits on the ultimate extent of globalization's spread. Addressing this will require novel approaches and may result in some counter-intuitive solutions. Through the MAGIC project, our aim is to provide better quantitative framings of the issue at hand, in order to aid decision makers who are confronted with the complex challenges associated with an increasingly globalized world.



Barca, S. (2017). Labour and the ecological crisis: The eco-modernist dilemma in western Marxism(s) (1970s-2000s). Geoforum, (June), 0–1. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2017.07.011

European Commission, 2018. Press Release. http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-14-379_en.htm

European Commission, 2014. European Energy Security Strategy [COM(2014)330]

Overland, I. (2016). Energy: The missing link in globalization. Energy Research and Social Science, 14, 122–130. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2016.01.009

Desalination is a viable nexus technology: but local conditions are key

Desalination is a viable nexus technology: but local conditions are key

Juan A. de La Fuente and Baltasar Peñate

The world population is expected to increase from the current 8.5 billion to 11.2 billion by 2100 (World Population Prospects, United Nations 2017). By 2050, global demand for energy will nearly double, while water demand is set to increase by over 50%. To overcome the increasing constraints the world faces, we need to rethink how we produce and consume energy in relation to the water sector.

The authorities responsible for water and energy are generally separated. Each has its own priorities and there seems to be little incentive to collaborate in the planning and development of new policies. At the same time, the water and energy sectors have always operated independently and there may be some resistance to a better integration of both sectors. Often, studies on the interconnection between water and energy have been initiated and driven by specific local circumstances, such as water and energy crises.

Seawater desalination is an important option for addressing the world's water supply challenges, but current desalination plants use huge quantities of energy causing several environmental issues. The energy intensity of desalination processes has dramatically decreased over the past 30 years, from slightly more than 15 kWh/m3 in the 1970s to approximately 2.5 kWh/m3 today thanks in large part to reverse osmosis (RO) technology improvements. Still, several physical constraints limit the ability to reduce the energy intensity of RO much further. This means that energy efficiency in RO has almost reached its biophysical limits.  

Brine discharge into the sea can have a negative environmental effect on the marine ecosystems due to its high salt concentration and other chemicals. Devices like Venturi diffusers for brine discharge can be used to improve the dilution process and reduce their environmental impact. It has been shown that the capacity to improve the dilution of Venturi system is greater than 2.3 times the dilution obtained with conventional diffusers. Another option could be the valorisation of brine, by using it for the culture of the microalgaes for the production of molecules such as β-carotene and polyunsaturated acids. The biomass obtained can be used in animal nutrition and Nutraceutics.

It is very likely that the water issue will be considered, like fossil energy resources, to be one of the determining factors of world stability. Desalination processes involve a recurrent energy expense which few of the water-scarce areas of the world can afford. Even if oil were much more widely available, could we afford to burn it in such a manner so as to provide everyone with fresh water? Given the current understanding of the greenhouse effect and the importance of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, environmental pollution caused by burning fossil fuels for desalination is a major concern.

Renewable energy (RES) technologies, mostly solar and wind energy systems, can provide access to a cost-effective, secure and environmentally sustainable supply of energy that can be used for water desalination. As RES technologies continue to improve, and as freshwater becomes scarce and fossil fuel energy prices rise, utilising RES for desalination becomes more viable economically. RES may provide water desalination cost reductions due to lower greenhouse gas emissions. For example, a seawater RO desalination system operating on traditional fossil fuel-based energy sources produces 1.78 kg and 4.05 g of CO2 and NOx per 1 m3 of desalted water, which can be reduced to 0.6 kg/m3 – 0.1 kg/m3 and 1.8 kg/m3 – 0.4 kg/m3, respectively, with electricity generated from wind or solar energy  (Raluy RG, Serra L, Uche J. 2005. Life cycle assessment of desalination technologies integrated with renewable energies. Desalination 183(1–3):81–93).

On the other hand, the role that desalination could play in the integration of electricity produced by renewable sources in the electricity grid is also an interesting topic.

The major constraint on increasing penetration of RES is their availability and intermittency, which can be addressed through using energy storage or smart control, when available, to balance renewable energy generation with energy demand.

The Canary Islands archipelago in Spain is a perfect example of how a region with water shortage and presence of RES resources has alleviated its water scarcity problem using desalination technologies, exploiting in turn the sun and wind resources available in the area.

The water – energy nexus has been one of the key R&D lines of the Canary Islands Institute of Technology (ITC). The ITC has developed and tested prototypes of different renewable energy driven desalination systems, operating in off-grid mode, since 1996. The ITC facilities in Pozo Izquierdo (Gran Canaria Island) are an ideal platform for testing RES desalination systems thanks to the excellent local conditions: direct access to seawater, annual average wind speed of 8 m/s, average daily solar radiation of 6 kWh/m2. Up to 18 different combined systems of renewable energy generation and desalination processes have been tested at the ITC.

Depending on the local environmental conditions, regulation and policy, desalination is a viable technology where RES resources are readily available. With planning and an adequate policy, desalination should be an alternative water resource. However, the energy dependence and the relatively high water cost must be analysed on a case by case basis before proposing specific arrangements.