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Renewable Energy in the Water, Energy & Food Nexus

The latest report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) "Renewable Energy in the Water, Energy & Food Nexus "looks at :

  • How adopting renewables can ease trade-offs by providing less resource-intensive energy services compared to conventional energy technologies? Renewable energy technologies can address trade-offs between water, energy and food, bringing substantial benefits in all three key sectors. An energy system with substantial shares of renewable energy would be less water-intensive than one dependent on fossil fuels.
  • Renewable energy technologies can boost water security by improving accessibility, affordability and safety.
  • Integrating renewable energy in the agrifood supply chain helps to rein in cost volatility, bolster energy security, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to long-term food sustainability.
  • Modern bioenergy – sustainably and efficiently managed – could play an important role in these ongoing transformations.

Renewable energy technologies provide access to a cost-effective, secure and environmentally sustainable supply of energy. Their rapid growth can have substantial spill-over effects in the water and food sectors. Yet detailed knowledge on the role renewables can play in the nexus remains limited and widely dispersed.

Renewable Energy in the Water, Energy and Food Nexus aims to bridge this gap, providing the broad analysis that has been lacking on the interactions of renewables within those key sectors. Building on existing literature, the study examines both global and country-specific cases to highlight how renewable energy can address the trade-offs, helping to address the world’s pressing water, energy and food challenges.

Land uses for energy and food production are closely related, and can be made compatible. The production of bioenergy feedstock, in particular energy crops, may require arable land, thereby raising the risk of competition for land resources. This conflict can be addressed by improving land-use efficiency by increasing yields, setting the right incentive frameworks, promoting integrated food–energy systems assessing the use of abandoned or degraded land suitable for certain bioenergy crops, and using non-competing agricultural waste streams and residues as feedstock.

Energy production technologies have varying land intensities and affect the quality of land differently. It is therefore important to consider both quantitative (e.g., installed capacity per square metre) and qualitative aspects (e.g., duration of impact, changes to quality of land), across the entire life cycle – fuel extraction and processing, installation, production and decommissioning. With technology advancements and efficiency improvements, the land intensity of different power generation technologies reduces, thereby presenting opportunities for repowering existing plants, deploying more capacity with less land.