Impacts of climate change on our water and energy systems: it’s complicated

A team of researchers from Berkeley Lab, UC Berkeley, and UC Santa Barbara propose a framework for evaluating climate change adaptations, provide a case study of California


Research News


As the planet continues to warm, the twin challenges of diminishing water supply and growing energy demand are intensifying. But because water and energy are inextricably linked, as we try to adapt to one challenge – say, by getting more water via desalination or water recycling – we may be worsening the other challenge by choosing energy-intensive processes.

So, in adapting to the consequences of climate change, how can we be sure that we aren’t making problems worse?

Now, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), UC Berkeley, and UC Santa Barbara have developed a science-based analytic framework to evaluate such complex connections between water and energy, and options for adaptations in response to an evolving climate. Their study, “Evaluating cross-sectoral impacts of climate change and adaptations on the energy-water nexus: A framework and California case study,” was published recently in the open-access journal Environmental Research Letters.

“There have been many analyses on how climate change could affect the water and energy sectors separately, but those studies were not typically looking at interactions and feedbacks between the two,” said lead author Julia Szinai of Berkeley Lab’s Climate and Ecosystem Sciences Division. “Our paper develops a generalized framework that identifies how climate change affects these coupled water and electricity systems, and potential adaptations to future gaps in supply and demand. By doing so, we illustrate often-overlooked tradeoffs and synergies in adapting to climate change.”

“In developing this project, Julia led a remarkable effort to integrate the climate impacts and feedbacks between the energy and water sectors,” said co-author Daniel Kammen, a professor of energy and resources at UC Berkeley. “What is critical to planning our future under climate change is to capture – in both simplified and full dynamical models ¬- how interdependent are our infrastructure choices.”

In applying the framework they developed to California, which relies on the snowpack for a good deal of its water and expends significant amounts of energy to transport water from the northern to the southern part of the state, they found that there are two possible adaptation pathways: one that is energy intensive and one that can actually save both water and energy.

“One of the most important points of the paper is that adapting our water system to climate change can either significantly exacerbate electricity grid stress, or on the flip side, it could help to alleviate it,” said co-author and Berkeley Lab climate scientist Andrew Jones. “If we focus on adapting the water system by using big transfers of water across basins, or by using energy-intensive desalination, that’s just going to make the electricity problem much more difficult. If, on the other hand, we adapt the water system by conserving water, it’s actually a win-win situation because you’re also reducing the energy required for water.”

Currently, a staggering 19% of California’s electricity consumption goes toward water-related applications, such as treating it, transporting it, pumping it, and heating it. Additionally, about 15% of in-state electricity generation comes from hydropower. Such interdependencies are referred to as the water-energy nexus. The state has already seen some impacts that climate change could have on these highly interdependent water-energy systems; for example, extended droughts and reduced snowpack have resulted in spikes in electricity consumption from groundwater pumping and hydropower deficits, which were made up by generating electricity using dirtier fossil fuels.

Looking ahead, the researchers integrated data across a number of fragmented studies to estimate the overall range of possible water and energy futures under various climate scenarios for the state at the end of the century. Their analysis found that the greatest direct climate change impact on the electricity sector in California will likely come from two factors: higher air conditioning loads and decreased hydropower availability. In the water sector, the greatest and most uncertain impact of climate change is on future water supplies. In the worst case, available water supplies could decrease 25%, and in the best case could increase 46%.

Applying their framework to California’s water-energy future, they found that, if the state were to adapt to the worst-case water scenario by choosing the most energy-intensive technologies, it could result in an energy imbalance as large as that caused by climate change itself (increased air conditioning use and decreased hydropower availability being the climate change factors having the greatest direct energy imbalance impact).

“I think this is the first study to show that water sector adaptation can have as large of an impact on the electricity sector as the direct effect of climate change itself,” said Jones. “So, if we pursued the energy-intensive path to water sector adaptation then it is as large as the direct effect of climate change, in the worst case.”

Co-author Ranjit Deshmukh, a professor of environmental studies at UC Santa Barbara and faculty scientist at Berkeley Lab, noted, “Going forward, the electricity sector could leverage its close coupling with the water sector to enable balancing of increasing wind and solar generation in California as the state strives to meet its low-carbon-emission goals. For example, energy-intensive equipment such as water pumps or desalination plants, with adequate water storage, could be operated during times of plentiful solar and wind energy, and turned off at other times.”

Next, Szinai, a UC Berkeley graduate student, said she plans to develop detailed models of both water and electricity systems so researchers can run simulations under various climate change and climate change adaptation scenarios, ultimately aiding planners in building out both the electrical grid and water resources.

“This study has highlighted the benefit of coordinated adaptation planning between the two sectors, so we’re now linking a more detailed water resources management model and an electricity planning model that can demonstrate resilient pathways for building out electricity infrastructure in the Western U.S. when climate change impacts are included from the water sector,” she said.


This study was supported by the DOE Office of Science and the National Science Foundation. It is part of DOE’s HyperFACETS project.

Founded in 1931 on the belief that the biggest scientific challenges are best addressed by teams, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and its scientists have been recognized with 14 Nobel Prizes. Today, Berkeley Lab researchers develop sustainable energy and environmental solutions, create useful new materials, advance the frontiers of computing, and probe the mysteries of life, matter, and the universe. Scientists from around the world rely on the Lab’s facilities for their own discovery science. Berkeley Lab is a multiprogram national laboratory, managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit

From EurekAlert!

Charles addendum:

Somebody correct me if I’m wrong, but it appears researchers at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), UC Berkeley, and UC Santa Barbara, funded by the DOE, have figured out that if a water system uses energy, then conserving water will save energy.

Did I miss anything? Is there anything more there? I’m happy to be wrong on this.

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January 12, 2021 6:12 am

Science has become the modern Tower of Babel.

January 12, 2021 6:43 am

No it issim0ke. Anything government tries to do to fix it will make things worse. Start there and then find private solutions.

Reply to  bluecat57
January 12, 2021 6:44 am


David A
Reply to  bluecat57
January 12, 2021 12:47 pm

” Only the government can create a sand shortage in the middle of the desert.”
Milton Friedman.

412 ppm CO2 saves tremendous amounts of water. All crops would require about 15 to 20 percent more water if CO2 was 280 ppm.

All bio growth likewise benefits. Yet in California we spend billions on a train to nowhere and more billions on un-reliables. ( Proving Milton correct) Yet we could have abundant energy and water for significantly less.

Reply to  David A
January 12, 2021 3:49 pm

Do you recall Milton’s spoons and buckets anecdote?
Found memories of watching and reading Free to Choose when it came out. And voting for Reagan.

Nick Schroeder
January 12, 2021 6:57 am

What do you expect from wet-behind-the-ears barely twenty-somethings with their participation PhDs?

Tsk Tsk
Reply to  Nick Schroeder
January 12, 2021 10:27 am

Waterlogged is probably a better description.

Gregory Woods
January 12, 2021 7:22 am

but what do the computer models say?

Reply to  Gregory Woods
January 12, 2021 11:33 am

There is a line that says…

“In the worst case, available water supplies could decrease 25%, and in the best case could increase 46%.”

So pretty much normal model projections. ie CLUELESS.

Reply to  Gregory Woods
January 12, 2021 1:32 pm

Next, Szinai, a UC Berkeley graduate student, said she plans to develop detailed models of both water and electricity systems so researchers can run simulations under various climate change and climate change adaptation scenarios, ultimately aiding planners in building out both the electrical grid and water resources.

Just what we need – more models.

Reply to  Mr.
January 12, 2021 1:55 pm

How do I close the blockquote paragraph when I’ve used the ” thingy?

Reply to  Charles Rotter
January 12, 2021 4:46 pm

That’s where I started Charles.
Couldn’t pull it off with that equipment 🙁

Reply to  Mr.
January 12, 2021 7:41 pm

Do your blockquote and other formatting after you have done your typing.

Reply to  fred250
January 12, 2021 8:14 pm

thanks Fred

Rainer Bensch
Reply to  Mr.
January 13, 2021 4:33 am

Just click again on the thingy on a new line.

January 12, 2021 7:37 am

“As the planet continues to warm, the twin challenges of diminishing water supply and growing energy demand are intensifying. But because …”

To quote the Irish Joke, I wouldn’t start from here!

Peta of Newark
January 12, 2021 8:07 am

2 points:
People, you’re going to run crash-slap-bang into Jevon’s Paradox
i.e. Improving the efficiency of use of any resource has the effect of increasing its overall consumption.
What you will do with this efficiency increase is reduce the system redundancy – it will become more ‘fragile’
Thus when it does break, as all human-engineered systems inevitably do, more people will get hurt and more environment will be trashed.

Does anyone nowadays take any heed of what people said 100 years ago. Will anyone in year 2100 give a toss about what you’re saying here & now.

By example: 100 years ago, it was known how to effectively reverse and thus ‘cure’ Type 2 Diabetes
Is anybody following the fruits of that research – something surely of infinitely more contemporary relevance than what you’re going on about.
i.e. An increase in rainfall of between minus 25 and plus 46 per-cent

People, Get. A. Life.

Ron Long
January 12, 2021 8:52 am

Kalifornia and Water is a bad mixture of climate, environment, and politics. I was in Bishop, CA, some years ago when Kalifornia ruled that the Desert Pupfish, a very small inhabitant of springs, were rare, threatened and/or endangered. The real reason is LA wanted the water to continue in the route toward themselves and not go into, wait for it, Agriculture! In Bishop this was not a popular law, and there were bumper stickers for sale everywhere you went that said “It Takes a Thousand Pupfish To Make A Sandwich”.

January 12, 2021 9:02 am

This is a nice piece of work, but actually is a bit behind the curve. California has a multi-pronged set of policy initiatives to cut both water usage and energy demand going forward. The policies are quite expansive, so I will just outline the highlights here.

1) Restrict water usage to the Central Valley region. Send 50% of the available water supply straight into the sea to “protect the Delta Smelt”. Decry the agriculture sector as using 80% of all the water. Do not mention that this is 80% of whats left after half the supply gets flushed to the ocean. The fact that this has reduced the most productive farmland on the planet to an arid wasteland is of no concern. The agricultural sector is expendable.
2) Make productive people know they are unwelcome. Raise taxes relentlessly, especially high rates on high earners and corporate income taxes. Waiting in the wings is a “wealth tax”, to confiscate savings that have already been taxed.
3) Degrade the quality of life everywhere and in every way possible. Pursue policies which make electricity the most expensive in the country. Destroy neighborhoods and whole cities with policies encouraging homelessness, vagrancy and the attendant high crime.
4) Kill off basic constitutional rights. No Free Speech, no freedom of association, no liberty, which is to say no freedom of movement. Indeed, the CA Election Commission has started monitoring the internet for wrong-think, or as they put it “misinformation and disinformation”. Formal censorship has arrived.

On a contrary note:
We note the authors make a good point examining the linkage between water and energy.
The one proven way to increase both is to develop the water system. Building dams and reservoirs will accomplish three goals simultaneously.
1) Increase the water supply.
2) Produce hydro power.
3) Increase flood control capacity.
We observe that in the early 1970s, plans had been made to *double* the state’s reservoir capacity, with several projects under construction. In the mid to late 1970s all projects were cancelled, construction was halted, and completed work was ripped down again.

In Conclusion:
California has plans in place to balance population needs with resource availability.
It should be noted that while resource demand may exceed resource availability, resource *usage* will never exceed resource capacity. This is a feature, not a bug.

January 12, 2021 9:07 am

“Somebody correct me if I’m wrong, but it appears researchers at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), UC Berkeley, and UC Santa Barbara, funded by the DOE, have figured out that if a water system uses energy, then conserving water will save energy.

“Did I miss anything? Is there anything more there? I’m happy to be wrong on this.”

But Charles, while totally self-evident, their finding comes from “a science-based analytic framework” and they can develop “detailed models of both water and electricity systems”. Apparently such models don’t already exist.

Dave Fair
Reply to  Retired_Engineer_Jim
January 12, 2021 12:02 pm

As I noted above, validated water and power operational studies have existed for the Central Valley Project (CVP) in CA for decades. I see no reference to them in the discussion of the study. However, there is an honest-to-God graduate student that will develop both water and power models at the drop of a hat (grant money).

Big Al
January 12, 2021 9:19 am

I heard a podcast by a pro-nuclear guy, he made a off hand comment about how easy it would be to have a nuclear powered desalting plant, with all the fresh water you could want!

Erik Magnuson
Reply to  Big Al
January 12, 2021 10:24 am

With the latest RO membranes, it takes less energy to desalinate sea water than it does to pump water from NorCal to SoCal. Using reverse osmosis to purify sewage takes even less energy.

Reply to  Erik Magnuson
January 12, 2021 11:28 am

Ewe! 💩

Reply to  Big Al
January 12, 2021 1:31 pm

Saudi Arabia is planning to order 4 nuclear power plants to provide electricity for its desalinization plants.

Reply to  Big Al
January 12, 2021 2:25 pm

Big AL
The nuclear power plant can be oversized to provide base load electricity to the grid while also powering the desalination plant.
The nuclear power plant can be run at a constant rate but vary the distribution to the grid and DP based on daily and seasonal demand.

Do we get our PHD now?

Reply to  Big Al
January 12, 2021 2:47 pm

The way to tell that someone is lying is by what they do. If someone is shouting that the ship is sinking but refuse to get into the lifeboat then they don’t really believe that the ship is sinking. The fact that the greens have not embraced nuclear power shows that they don’t really believe that the world is in danger.

paul courtney
January 12, 2021 9:44 am

Charles, you obviously missed the part of the story where these scientists save the planet. They will show us how we can have more water and more energy if we conserve water and energy. To save planet earth, we must use less so we have more.
Took a village of scientists to raise this idea.

January 12, 2021 9:48 am

Maybe the problem isn’t an energy or water use problem.
Maybe it’s an urbanization problem.
Maybe instead of rationing water and energy we de-urbanize.
Maybe (Los Angels) 8,000 people crammed into a square mile is what is untenable.

Brian Bellefeuille
Reply to  Philip
January 12, 2021 10:21 am

Correct. It’s not so much about the amount of water, it’s about where the water is. Since LA has sucked up all the nearby water like a giant straw, they now are looking north. Peripheral canals, tunnels, etc.. let’s move billions of gallons uphill. Bet that takes a little energy. Maybe we shouldn’t build cities in the desert.

Reply to  Brian Bellefeuille
January 12, 2021 11:32 am

About the only use case that fits the unreliable turbines and solar cells that California is pinning it’s hopes on. Us them to desalinate and purify local water sources like the ocean and fill up reservoirs.

Reply to  Brian Bellefeuille
January 12, 2021 11:52 am

Or casinos, or golf courses, or… 😏

David A
Reply to  Brian Bellefeuille
January 13, 2021 7:11 am

That desert has an ocean.

See nuclear power desalination comments above. There is no water shortage on earth.
There is no energy shortage. There is gobs of bad policy.

Tsk Tsk
Reply to  Philip
January 12, 2021 10:31 am

Especially if that square mile is basically in a desert.

Reply to  Tsk Tsk
January 12, 2021 11:55 am

There is that. Though I doubt a fertile square mile remains so with 8,000 people permanently camped on it.

Dave Fair
Reply to  Philip
January 12, 2021 12:09 pm

Maybe the government could focus on meeting the needs of people were they are found. Socialism results in shortages to manage; Capitalism provides for the needs and wants of the people.

Reply to  Dave Fair
January 12, 2021 12:23 pm

It used to, before Politicians found the way to exploit the taxpayer and buy the vote through the promotion of centralized, munificent big government.

Trying to Play Nice
January 12, 2021 10:03 am

“For example, energy-intensive equipment such as water pumps or desalination plants, with adequate water storage, could be operated during times of plentiful solar and wind energy, and turned off at other times.”

I think the problem comes in when you can only use water during daylight when the wind is blowing. I’m not from California, but I’m sure there must be some inconvenient times when the wind isn’t blowing.

Brian Bellefeuille
Reply to  Trying to Play Nice
January 12, 2021 11:21 am

Along with pumping the water, the wind and solar needs to keep the lights and AC running. Not to mention the all electric vehicle fleet California has planned by 2040. Sound like time for another study to investigate the wind/solar/lights/water/car dynamic. Nah….let’s just live like they did in the Middle ages. Problem solved.

Jim Gorman
Reply to  Brian Bellefeuille
January 12, 2021 11:48 am

I see two options.

Soylent Green plants instead of desalination.

Draw straws to see who has to emigrate south.

Rory Forbes
January 12, 2021 10:58 am

It seems to me that studies like this are what happens when these institutions and their pet “scientists” have run out of bad things caused by “climate change” or any useful projects.

Walter Sobchak
January 12, 2021 10:58 am

Developing a mdel so we can run simulations.

Porn manga for climate geeks.

January 12, 2021 11:25 am

BS alert!

“As the planet continues to warm, the twin challenges of diminishing water supply and growing energy demand are intensifying.”

How is it possible with melting glaciers and ice caps, as well as rising sea levels, to have diminishing water supplies?

I hope the Earth continues to warm the way is has for the past century. It will be a greener, wetter, more hospitable home for every one and every creature.

Dave Fair
January 12, 2021 11:52 am

Working for the DOE, I managed the Division responsible for all of the water and power operational studies for Northern California’s Central Valley Project (CVP), which includes of all the associated dams, electrical generating facilities, canals and pumping stations. Detailed, validated studies of the operation of the CVP are performed regularly by the DOE to project water and power availability to the region. Have we now degenerated to a system whereby environmental studies professors try to dictate the operation of highly complex water and power systems, which are constrained by binding contracts among all parties.

The the contractual parties include Federal, State and local governmental entities, municipal utility districts, electric power cooperatives, investor owned utilities, transmission facility owners, water districts, Pacific Northwest power producers, and etc. I assure you, from personal experience, it is like herding cats to make any progress on changing any of the contractual provisions and it can take decades to make even the most simple progress. The “because … climate” mantra will not act like a magic wand and make the complications go away.

Anyway, the “study” is assumptions and models all the way down. Anyone want to bet that RCP8.5 wasn’t used? Since actual maximum temperature trends show no significant upwards trend, how is it that air conditioning loads would significantly increase (other than population growth)? Since droughts have shown no increasing trends, how is it that less water will be available in the future? Have the study authors used existing DOE studies of the reasonably anticipated variations of the CVP water and power system? Why would anybody trust a UC Berkeley graduate student (in some unspecified discipline) to develop new water and power operating models that would replace current DOE models and dictate contracted actions by others?

Reply to  Dave Fair
January 12, 2021 1:52 pm

These days, even though the ink hasn’t dried on their university diplomas, graduates are all immediately “experts” in some specialized field wherein government departments are the only possible source of employment.

Kinda like me buying a soldering kit via Amazon with user instructions loosely translated from Mandarin, and then immediately setting up shop as a pc board repairer. It all looked so easy.

I leave the outcomes of my dalliance with soldering expertise to the imaginations of mature readers.

But you can bet that the outcomes of these new water / energy models would be at the same standard of my soldering escapades.

Reply to  Mr.
January 12, 2021 2:41 pm

Excellent reply to David’s excellent comment.
I see this first hand in my organisation.
But your analogy to the computer repair shop is not accurate.
These people don’t want to do physical work.

It’s more like student buys book “ first aid for dummies “ but has no intention of being a doctor, they want to manage the hospital.

Simon Sinek has highlighted this millennial problem of wanting to get to the top of the mountain without climbing it.

January 12, 2021 12:32 pm

Just another “us/me too” virtue signaling paper. I wonder how many brilliant minds it took to determine using more resource will cost more?

Michael in Dublin
January 12, 2021 3:35 pm

Before World War 2 the city engineer of Port Elizabeth (South Africa) recognizing that the city was growing and would have water problems in the future pushed for a dam to be built. This was completed about 100km from the city in 1946. With a more consistent water supply it was intended to supplement the city water when its main dam was low.

However, in 2020 when the main dam fell below 7% because the link was not properly maintained it was not able to supply a much needed top-up for the city which made severe water restrictions even worse. On top of this because of problems with the electricity supply people found themselves both without power and water – some for days on end.

We need people with common sense not impractical alarmists to address these problems. No university studies are going to solve this problem. We need hands-on-engineers and not political leaders, political academics and greedy investors to address this problem.

Pat from kerbob
January 12, 2021 4:41 pm

From what I read they are suggesting Californians should only have access to water when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining, otherwise shut off the pumps.
Please implement today, just throw a switch
Let’s see how it works out

Alasdair Fairbairn
January 12, 2021 8:27 pm

Behind all this grant pleading goobleydegook and airy conjectures lies a good principle that the Dutch cottoned onto many years ago; namely that wind energy could be usefully employed pumping and lifting water.

The point here being that the energy extracted automatically gets usefully stored in an environmental benefit, although unavailable for instant use without further input of energy.
The implication here is that when specifically used in the movement of water free of this requirement for 24/7use could have considerable benefit in environmental terms. In simple terms use this energy DISCONNECTED  from any grid system where possible.
This also applies to the purification of water in specific locations and even in local soil/ground heating to increase crop yields.

First, however there needs to be shift away from the the current obsessional mindset on CO2 emissions and global warming, to enable some lateral thinking on the subject.

Joel O'Bryan
January 12, 2021 9:02 pm

Climate change policy is by far away the worst threat to our water and energy systems.

January 13, 2021 1:03 pm

Isn’t it called way too many people for the limited amount of resources.

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