Water–Energy Nexus

Global Challenges Special Issue on Water and Energy

Prologue: Recognizing the Water-Energy Nexus: A Personal RecollectionGlobal Challenges Water Energy Nexus Special issue

By Allan Hoffman

My first professional contact with water issues came in August 1999 when I was invited to represent the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), my employer, at a meeting in Amman, Jordan. The meeting was to plan a major Middle East water conference for later that year in Amman that would involve King Hussein of Jordan, President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Yasser Arafat, and Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel. The motivation for the conference was clear—U.S. President Bill Clinton, assisted by King Hussein, was actively engaged in Middle East peace talks with the Israelis and the Palestinians and water was a principal issue in these negotiations. The planning meeting, to take place a few weeks later in mid-September, was to set the stage for a meaningful dialogue on water that would advance the peace process.

I remember well the moment I received the invitation because of my immediate reaction to Gene DeLaTorre, who delivered the invitation on behalf of DOE’s Assistant Secretary for Policy: “Why me? I don’t know a damn thing about water except what I read in the papers.” Gene, whom I had not known previously but subsequently became a good friend, gave me the three reasons I was targeted: I was a senior DOE official, an expert on renewable energy, which was recognized as part of the solution, and had considerable experience through my work on renewable energy dealing with senior officials in other governments. Not having a good reason to say no, and interested in doing what I could to help the peace process, I said yes and put myself on a fast learning curve.

That learning curve included lots of reading on global water fundamentals, the Middle East water situation, desalination, and meetings with former government and current think tank officials with experience in the Middle East. Less than a month after receiving and accepting the invitation I was on my way to Frankfurt, Germany to meet up with two scientists from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) who would be joining me for the final leg to Amman. Unfortunately, one of the LLNL scientists missed the connecting flight to Frankfurt and had to take a later flight with a middle of the night stop in Syria. He also arrived in Amman without his luggage and attended our first meeting the next morning in his jeans and sneakers.

The majority of the participants in the planning meeting were water experts from Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, people who had been cooperating for many years and knew one another well. The PA delegation was led by Nabil al Sharif, the PA Water Minister and a civil engineering classmate of Arafat. The U.S. delegation was small, consisting of me and the two LLNL scientists, a Middle East water expert from the U.S. Department of State, and a former U.S. Congressman from Utah who was focused on U.S.-Middle East dialogue and was a moving force behind the planning meeting. In total, about fifty people participated in the two-day meeting.

My role was to bring an energy perspective to the meeting, in addition to the hydrologic expertise of the LLNL staffers and the political experience of the State Department representative. The meeting went well, reflecting the shared interests and perspectives of the water experts who had clearly worked together in the past, and I learned a great deal. In fact, my growing interest in water issues peaked when Nabil stood up at one point in the meeting to state that there would be no peace in the Middle East until the water issue was addressed.

Upon returning to the U.S. after the meeting, having concluded that water issues were much more important than I had realized, I resolved to learn as much as I could. Even though George W. Bush was elected U.S. President in November and Republicans took over the Executive Branch on January 20, 2001 (note: I had served as a political appointee in the Democratic Carter Administration in the 1970s), my senior status at DOE and control over most of my calendar allowed me the time to pursue my water education. Very quickly I realized that many of the things I had been saying in my public presentations on energy applied to water as well: there is no shortage of energy (water) in the world; what is in short supply is inexpensive energy (clean water) that people can afford to buy; energy (water) security depends on the wise use of the resource, whatever its source. This was my first realization of the close connection between water and energy, an understanding that I presumed other people shared. What surprised me, as I began to talk about this with people in both the water and energy communities, is that energy people rarely thought about water except as it was needed to cool thermal power plant exhausts and run through hydropower plants, and water people rarely thought about the energy needed to provide water services.

As I delved further into the nexus I came to understand the following: Central to addressing issues of water security—defined as the ability to access sufficient quantities of clean water to maintain adequate standards of food and goods production, sanitation and health—is having the energy to extract water from underground aquifers, push water through pipes and canals, manage and treat impaired water for reuse, and desalinate brackish and sea water to provide new fresh water supplies. Many aspects of energy production depend on the availability of water including hydropower, cooling of thermal power plants, fossil fuel production and processing, biofuels, carbon capture and sequestration, and hydrogen production. The inextricable linkage between energy and water is clear, but hasn’t always been recognized.

Other, indirect, linkages exist as well. Energy production and use can lead to contamination of underground and surface water supplies. If competing water uses limit use of waterways for transport of goods, rail and truck will require more energy to move those goods. Another critical linkage is that energy production and use are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, which have the potential to disrupt the hydrological cycle and impact global water resources long before other impacts are felt. By altering the timing of winter snows, snowmelt, and spring rains, climate change could overload reservoirs early in the season, forcing releases of water and leaving areas like California and the Himalayas high and dry in late summer. Coastal areas and island nations also face a serious threat from rising ocean water levels that destroy property and flood low-lying areas, causing salt-water intrusion of fresh-water supplies and putting the drinking water of millions at risk.

In June 2000 I felt confident enough of my growing knowledge to give a talk on water–energy issues to the Organization of American States: “Water, Energy and Sustainable Development”. This was followed by presentations to the World Renewable Energy Council in July and to an electric utility industry conference in March 2001. I also began to write on the subject and remember asking one of my colleagues, who was an accomplished writer, if it would be acceptable to use the word ‘nexus’ to describe the relationship—i.e., would it be easily understood? He said yes and so the phrase water–energy nexus was born.

During those early days at the start of the new century I was trying to generate some interest in DOE to explore this interesting connection, which I believed had relevance for several of DOE’s programs, but with little success. When the issue reached my new Assistant Secretary he dismissed the effort as ‘mission creep’ that would divert funding from other programs. Thus, to the best of my knowledge, my efforts constituted DOE’s only focused attention to the water–energy nexus at that time. Following several public presentations in 2003 and early 2004 the first real breakthrough came in August 2004 when I was invited to write a paper on water and energy security for the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, where I served as a technical advisor. This request came in on a Wednesday; the article was published the following week and quickly led to more speaking opportunities. One of the more interesting was a presentation in September to FERC, the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, on the topic “Water and Energy Security”. Another opportunity was a plenary address to the 2005 Solar World Congress in August 2005 entitled “Water Security: A Growing Crisis”, which was also published as the lead article in the July/August 2005 issue of Solar Today magazine. There were many other speaking opportunities in the following years, including presentations to the National Science Foundation, Lockheed-Martin Corporation, the U.S. State Department, the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, the Brookings Institution, the Environmental Protection Agency, the IEA Working Party on Renewable Energy, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, the International Water Association, and others.

Another important step in recognizing the water–energy nexus was the realization, at a regular meeting of DOE and U.S. National Laboratory officials to discuss DOE’s research needs, that many of the Labs had an interest in the water–energy connection but were pursuing it quietly on their own using small amounts of discretionary funds. I did a brief overview of the topic at the meeting and an entire afternoon ended up being devoted to Laboratory discussions of their activities. What came out of that meeting was the organization of a coordinated National Laboratory effort on water–energy issues to be led by Sandia National Laboratory (SNL) and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). Both Laboratories had committed resources to exploring the linkage between water and energy, and LBNL, involved in State of California water efforts, even had a dedicated water–energy technology team called WET. Other important players were Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which years earlier had led studies on desalination, and the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), supported by DOE’s Fossil Energy Program. The resultant coordinated National Laboratory team soon provided briefings on the nexus for senior DOE managers.

To illustrate how quietly these Lab efforts had been underway, I had close contacts with LBNL through my clean energy efforts, and was totally surprised to learn of WET. When I mentioned this to a close friend at LBNL he invited me to spend a day at the Berkeley Lab to get briefed on their water activities and to talk about mine. It was an illuminating day on both parts.

Another important step was a meeting in 2008 with Professor Gustaf Olsson of Lund University in Sweden. He had read some of my papers, was on a visit to the U.S., and, expressing interest in learning more, asked to meet. We had a lengthy conversation in which I offered to share more of my work and a collaboration was born that lasts till this day. The rest is history—Gustaf undertook to master this field and in 2012 published his important book entitled “Water and Energy: Threats and Opportunities”, which is now in its second edition.

While there was no specific support for U.S. water–energy nexus studies during the Bush–Cheney Administration (2001-2008), there was a growing understanding that energy generation was the major contributor to the growing threat of global warming and climate change that would have major implications for precipitation patterns, water supply, and frequency of extreme weather events. As a result the phrase water–energy nexus was beginning to be heard more often and conferences began to be organized around that theme. Fracking of oil and gas shales, to increase fossil fuel supplies, also emerged as a contentious issue, given its large water demands and its potential for contaminating water supplies. To address that topic I organized a session on fracking for the Ground Water Protection Council Annual Forum in September 2010.

Throughout this period I continued to speak and write, and was encouraged by the election of Barack Obama as President of the U.S. in November 2008. Unlike the Bush Administration, which effectively denied the reality of global warming, President Obama talked openly about the need for global cooperation in addressing climate change. This was reflected in an Executive Order issued shortly after his inauguration that called on the federal departments and agencies to work together in identifying the potential impacts of global warming on U.S. government programs. This was an exciting time in which staff from all over the government worked together on multi-agency teams to carry out the mandated study. As the principal DOE official with a background in water–energy issues I was assigned to three of these teams, and on one was joined by a staff member from DOE’s policy office. Within a few months a comprehensive study was delivered to President Obama’s office.

With a Democratic Administration in place, I assumed water–energy issues would get increased attention and even some financial support. This proved to be naïve on my part as the new Democratic appointees to head the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) transferred me from my position in the EERE Policy and Budget Office to the Wind Power Program, where I was told that if I joined them I could no longer pursue my water–energy nexus activities. Rather than retire at that time, which I certainly could have done, I talked with people in the Wind Program and decided to serve as a graybeard in the newly established Office of Offshore Wind and help the program get started. I was and am enthusiastic about offshore wind as the most important emerging renewable energy technology.

This phase of my career ended with my retirement from DOE in 2012 and my decision to share my perspectives on renewable energy and wate–energy issues via my writing, of which this invited article is one part. DOE has also taken steps to formally recognize the nexus as part of its program activities via a study released in 2015. The issue is finally getting more of the attention it deserves.


[1] Blog, ‘Thoughts of a Lapsed Physicist: Perspectives on energy and water technologies and policy’, www.lapsedphysicist.org

[2] A.R. Hoffman, The U.S. Government and Renewable Energy – A Winding Road. Pan Stanford Publishing 2016.