A power station in Sweden during winter

A power station in Sweden during winter. Photo: Edvin Johansson / Unsplash

Rivers plays a crucial role in both maintaining the sustainability of ecosystems and supporting low-carbon energy production. Hydropower dams, although a source of renewable energy, can have negative effects on water systems and the environment downstream. One industry that emits large amounts of CO2 is steel production, but, for example, the development of “green steel” aims to reduce these emissions by using hydrogen that could be produced from renewable energy sources such as hydropower. The continued expansion of energy and industry processes relying on renewables will result in hydropower providing flexible energy thus increasing pressure on river networks and their ecosystems.

In Sweden the Norrbotten region (Northern Sweden) supplies most of the Swedish hydropower and is currently experiencing rapid increases in electricity demand due to power-hungry industrial expansion. The shift from conventional to variable renewable energy generation creates significant challenges for electric power systems. The increasing energy demand for industry presents challenges such as changes in river temperature and water quality, as well as increased pressure on resources from population growth due to urbanization. At the same time, the EU is promoting the use and production of hydrogen to achieve their green objectives, highlighting the need for optimizing the water and energy nexus.

Figure 1: Project Illustration

Figure 1: Project Illustration.

Improving the outdated hydropower operations using state of the art computational methods presents a great opportunity to reduce their environmental footprint while improving their performance. With the rise of renewable energy sources, it’s crucial to use hydro power for storage to increase the system’s flexibility and balance the intermittency of other less flexible sources e.g., wind and solar. To make informed decisions about optimizing and expanding hydropower, we need robust models to guide us. These models should help us identify strategies that balance energy demand and environmental goals. In this project we study the impact of this new load balancing hydropower operations will have on the river flows and ecosystem services. This research can help us make energy production, dam operation, and industries work better, while also considering the effects on the environment, economy, and society.

The aim is to explore coupling of water-energy systems modelling. Evidence produced will support the operations of the Bothnian Bay Water District (BBWD) in the North of Sweden: on water use from a river basin approach, energy requirements based on a scenario approach, and ecosystem effects from an unprecedent increase in energy and consequently water demand. We choose a regional approach for this project, since large-scale results need to be validated in the regional context because management, policy, and investment decisions are made at regional and sub-national levels.

This preparatory project is a collaboration between SEI and the Bothnian Bay Water District Authority (BBWDA). BBWD identifies that the impacts caused by e.g., heavily modified water flows and changing hydropower demand from rapid expansion of fossil-free energy intensive industries in its jurisdiction, remain unexplored. Current water management challenges therefore relate to the need for knowledge on how these types of operations will impact water resources. Furthermore, electricity production and hydropower’s role for balancing electricity grids is a challenge beyond the limits of Northern Sweden, with capacity issues and grid planning receiving increased attention at the national level.


The project is financed by the Blue Innovation Preparatory Projects call awarded by Formas. The project runs from 2021 to 2023.

The BBWD system covers 30 key catchment areas in Norrbotten and Västerbotten regions. This project analyses the administration limits of BBWD, which roughly correspond to the boundaries of Electricity Area 1. Energy demand in this area is expected to increase, making it necessary to investigate the linkages between water and energy systems. These coinciding boundaries further showcase the strong linkages between water and energy systems from an administrative and resource-oriented perspective. Such linkages are worth investigating with the purpose of producing robust modelling outputs.

We will utilize SEI’s WEAP and LEAP models, which offer a comprehensive and integrated approach to the water-energy nexus. WEAP, the Water Evaluation and Planning tool, evaluates and balances both the supply and demand aspects of water resources, allowing for a simulation of alternative water management strategies, that can be examined and discussed with stakeholders. On the other hand, LEAP, the Low Emissions Analysis Platform, takes a scenario-based approach to track energy consumption, production, and resource extraction across multiple sectors.

By combining the results from these models with participatory workshops, this project seeks to provide a deeper understanding of the possible pathways and make recommendations for future actions. The WEAP results will inform the LEAP model, offering a more nuanced view of the role water resources are expected to play under various scenarios. These models not only demonstrate a step forward in analysing the water-energy nexus at a regional scale, but they also provide a flexible and robust representation of water demands and electricity generation, further strengthening the linkages between these two critical systems.

The project will achieve its goals through four different work packages that aim to go beyond what’s currently known and provide concrete recommendations to enhance Sweden’s overall security. The results of the project will be shared with important decision makers and stakeholders to make sure the developed tools and action plans are used.

All of the project’s findings will be available to the public and the scientific community through open-access scientific journals and popular science and media outlets.