The water footprint of energy from biomass: a quantitative assessment and consequences of an increasing share of bio-energy in energy supply

Winnie Gerbens-Leenes, Arjen Ysbert Hoekstra, Theodorus H. van der Meer

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307 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

This paper assesses the water footprint (WF) of different primary energy carriers derived from biomass expressed as the amount of water consumed to produce a unit of energy (m3/GJ). The paper observes large differences among the WFs for specific types of primary bio-energy carriers. The WF depends on crop type, agricultural production system and climate. The WF of average bio-energy carriers grown in the Netherlands is 24 m3/GJ, in the US 58 m3/GJ, in Brazil 61 m3/GJ, and in Zimbabwe 143 m3/GJ. The WF of bio-energy is much larger than the WF of fossil energy. For the fossil energy carriers, the WF increases in the following order: uranium (0.1 m3/GJ), natural gas (0.1 m3/GJ), coal (0.2 m3/GJ), and finally crude oil (1.1 m3/GJ). Renewable energy carriers show large differences in their WF. The WF for wind energy is negligible, for solar thermal energy 0.3 m3/GJ, but for hydropower 22 m3/GJ. Based on the average per capita energy use in western societies (100 GJ/capita/year), a mix from coal, crude oil, natural gas and uranium requires about 35 m3/capita/year. If the same amount of energy is generated through the growth of biomass in a high productive agricultural system, as applied in the Netherlands, the WF is 2420 m3. The WF of biomass is 70 to 400 times larger than the WF of the other primary energy carriers (excluding hydropower). The trend towards larger energy use in combination with an increasing contribution of energy from biomass will enlarge the need for fresh water. This causes competition with other claims, such as water for food.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1052-1060
Number of pages9
JournalEcological economics
Volume68
Issue number4
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2009

Keywords

  • Fresh water
  • Sustainability
  • Water footprint
  • Energy
  • Biomass
  • IR-60005
  • Natural resource use
  • Bio-energy
  • METIS-249358

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