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Publication Date
17 November 2021

Future evolution of virtual water trading in the United States electricity sector



Future transformations in the electricity sector could entail major shifts in power sector technology mixes and electricity trade, with consequences for the trading of virtual water. Previous virtual water trade studies largely focus on historical timeframes. We explore, for the first time, future—through 2050—virtual water trade driven by electricity trade under a range of future electricity sector transformation scenarios using the United States as an example. Under a business-as-usual scenario, virtual water trading in 2050 decreases by 3% relative to 2015 levels. By contrast, virtual water trading increases respectively by 3%, 26%, and 32%, in scenarios characterized by higher socioeconomic growth, higher potential for transmission expansion, and low-carbon transitions. These increases are driven by electricity generation expansion in the western U.S., resulting in higher virtual water trade to the east. In addition, we find that as electricity generation shifts west, an increased amount of nonrenewable groundwater will be consumed to generate electricity that is supplied to the east. Independent of scenario, the US electricity grid largely relies on virtual water exports from only a few states. Our study highlights the need for integrated and national strategies to manage the water and electric systems.

Graham, Neal T, Gokul Iyer, Marshall Wise, Mohamad Hejazi, and Thomas B Wild. 2021. “Future Evolution Of Virtual Water Trading In The United States Electricity Sector”. Environmental Research Letters 16: 124010. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/ac3289.
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