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Water & Energy – crisis and opportunity

Any plan to switch from gasoline to electricity or biofuels is a strategic decision to switch our dependence from foreign oil to domestic water’.

So says Dr. Michael Webber of the University of Texas at Austin in an interview with Steven Lacey on the Inside Renewable Energy Podcast this week. Webber comments on the links between water and energy, the potential conflicts, but also about the potential opportunities which arise when you start to understand these links and realize that saving water, saves energy, and saving energy saves water.

The Podcast picks up on some of the issues I wrote about in ‘Energy Vs Water’. Ironically the water footprint of driving your electric car, if the electricity is generated at a thermal power plant, is much greater than the water footprint if you were using conventional gasoline.
Wind and photo-voltaic generated electricity has a far lower water footprint than either fossil fuel of nuclear generated electricity. Biofuels such as corn ethanol and sugar cane, require an inordinate amount of water to produce a litre of fuel. (Check out Water Implications of Biofuels Production in the United States)

Brazil happens to get a lot of rain, so they have an ideal climate for growing a thirsty crop like sugar cane. Jatropha, which has been heralded as a ‘super biofuel’ – high yield and capable of growing on marginal land, recently came under fire as it came to light that it is a very thirsty plant. There are on-going efforts to genetically engineer it to use less water.

A few months ago, I wrote a piece on lawns and how in California, certain municipalities are now ‘buying back’ lawns from homeowners to try and reduce water use. Michael Webber describes the water-energy paradox excellently when he says we are ‘using blue gold (water) to grow the grass, and then using black gold (oil) as a fuel to cut it back down again, with a zero net gain in many cases for society’.

There is however an opportunity in all of this. Saved water equals saved energy, and saved energy equals saved water. I have been looking at this closely in a new book on water technologies, “Water Technology Markets – key opportunities and emerging trends“. I looked at a range of technologies which can generate energy from wastewater and also at technologies which can reduce the energy required to desalinate seawater. Microbial Fuel cells are a very good example of this. A microbial fuel cell can purify wastewater and, at the same time, generate electricity. Its early days for this, but if successful could turn wastewater treatment plants, which are currently power hungry, into net producers of power. The company EMEFCY, came 4th in the Artemis Project Water Top 50 competition for its MEGAWATTER™ microbial fuel cell technology. There is a vision emerging for a smarter, more efficient, water system and creating the technologies which can make that system a reality, is where the BlueTech opportunity lies.

Paul O’ Callaghan is the founding CEO of the Clean Tech development consultancy O2 Environmental. Paul lectures on Sustainable Energy at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, is a Director with Ionic Water Technologies and an industry expert reviewer for Sustainable Development Technology Canada.

Californian City Considers Buying back lawns to save water

How ‘green’ is your lawn? The City of Fresno in California think’s not very ‘green’ at all and is proposing to ‘buy back’ lawns from home owners in an effort to stop people pouring the States’ precious water resources all over them. This is part of an Urban Water Management Plan approved by the Fresno City Council last month. The Assistant Director or Public Utilities, Garth Gaddy, said he could see the City paying $9 or $10 a square foot to homeowners who sign contracts saying they won’t reinstall lawns.

Given that Fresno’s peak water usage during the winter, when most residential sprinkler systems are shut off, is approximately one third of what it is in the summer, this makes good economic and environmental sense. In a City with an expanding population based, it’s a cheap of way of not having to find, treat and deliver new water.
Those “cash for grass” type programs are growing in popularity, said Jennifer Persike, public affairs director for the Association of California Water Agencies.

In Minnesota people were also concerned with the environmental footprint of lawns and enacted the Phosphorus Lawn Fertilizer Law to restrict application of phosphorus fertilizers to prevent nutrient enrichment of their lakes and rivers. While they are the only state so far in the US to enact such a law, the Province of Manitoba in Canada has just followed suit and enacted a similar law.

In addition to a plentiful supply of water and fertilizer, any home owner worth his salt knows that it’s only right and proper to give his lawn a good dose of herbicide every now to keep any insolent daisies at bay. This practice too however is coming under pressure, with several municipalities across North America enacting by-laws to ban the use of cosmetic pesticides and herbicides to protect the environment.

The solution to all of this? Jim Hagedorn, the CEO of and Chair of ScottsMiracle-Gro thinks it genetically modified grass. ‘When it comes to grass, people worry about watering, maintenance, and weeds, three headaches that genetic engineering – transgenic turf – could dramatically alleviate. “That’s the big kahuna for consumer lawns,” he says. “Solve those three issues and you’re a friggin’ hero!”
Nearly 50,000 square miles of the continental US is covered by lawn, according to estimates by ecologists at NASA’s Ames Research Center. Using satellite and aerial imagery, the team calculated that irrigated grass covers three times more land in the US than irrigated corn does. That makes turf the nation’s most widespread irrigated crop.
Lawn care and gardening is also the most popular outdoor leisure activity in the country, and the global industry supporting it generates an estimated $7 billion a year. ScottsMiracle-Gro accounts for more than a third of that – $2.4 billion in 2005.

It’s safe to say that no other nation commits even a fraction of the land, resources, chemicals, and water that the US does in pursuit of the perfect greensward.
So how did such a wholly unsustainable practice become so deep rooted in the fabric of suburbia? In American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn, historian Ted Steinberg traces it to three factors: 1. Indoor plumbing, 2. Suburbia, and 3. Clever marketing on the part of the lawn care industry.

The lawn care industry saw tens of thousands of men returning from the war to a society where leisure time was increasing. These men, disciplined by military service, were looking for something to do in their spare time, so the lawn care industry gave it to them. Through their marketing efforts, they convinced people that clover and various other weeds were ‘enemies’ to be ‘eradicated’. Prior to the late 1950s, most lawns were a mix of Kentucky Bluegrass and clover. It was an ideal mix because of clover’s ability to take nitrogen out of the air and self fertilize the lawn. However this cut into sales of nitrogen fertilizers, so the lawn care industry decided the clover had to go. This created a market for both nitrogen fertilizers and herbicides in one fell swoop.

In the article ‘Turf Warrior’ David Wolman reports that all that vegetation does however have some environmental benefit. According to the NASA group, lawns collectively absorb some 12 billion pounds of carbon each year – effectively cutting greenhouse gas emissions. And if that grass weren’t there, much more soil would run off into storm drains, waterways, and rivers, polluting reservoirs and hastening the erosion of hillsides and valuable farmland.

So maybe hold off on concreting that lawn, cut back on the water, hold the fertilizer, embrace those daisies and at the risk of being burned as a heretic, consider some GMO grass???

Paul O’Callaghan is the founding CEO of the Clean Tech development consultancy O2 Environmental. He lectures on Environmental Protection technology at Kwantlen University College is a Director with Ionic Water Technologies and an industry expert reviewer for Sustainable Development Technology Canada.

There’s water in dem dar clouds!

With seawater covering seventy-one per cent of the Earth’s surface, at an average depth of four kilometers, and another 1,000,000,000,000,000 liters of water in the first kilometer alone of the earth’ atmosphere, water could hardly be described as a rare element. Its more a case of ‘water water everywhere and not a drop to drink‘. I’m going to highlight a few different ways in which renewable energy can be used to produce drinking water.
One of the readers last week commented that use of wind turbines or wave energy to power desalination would be a great idea. Well in Perth Australia they are doing exactly that. Perth Australia has now established one of the largest desalination plants outside of the Middle East and set up a wind farm to power it. Electricity for the desalination plant, which has an overall 24MW requirement, comes from the new 80MW Emu Downs Wind Farm, located 30km east of the town of Cervantes. (anyone else see the irony here… Miguel Cervantes, …Don Quixote, Windmills?)

Speaking of windmills, another Australian, Max Whisson, an energetic septuagenarian inventor, believes he can solve the current water crisis with his Water Windmill invention, a unique technology to extract moisture from the atmosphere. The concept is to use windmills to cool air and extract water directly from the air and was partly inspired from an African beetle, Stenocara, who manages to be completely water sufficient by standing on his head in the desert and using cooling plates on his body to extract water vapor from the air. Here is a link to a video
showing the wind turbine in operation. The “Whisson Windmill” will make it possible to get adequate water anywhere at any time, drought or no drought” says Dr. Whisson. Given that between 1% and 4% of the earths atmosphere is water vapor, he may be onto something.
Max also had another concept he called a ‘Water Road’ which Nick Bruce featured on his podcast, the CleanTech Show. In the “Water Road”, seawater is transported inland in black pipes covered with Perspex; solar energy heats up the water at it travels through the pipes to 70-80 C. Water vapor is produced and condensed several hundred kilometers inland to provide water for irrigation. The genius of both of his ideas is the direct conversion of primary energy to the desired end result which is pure water. They are very early stage, conceptual as far as I can tell.

Another technology being developed by the New Mexico State University uses low grade heat and a vacuum to run a distillation process. The system can convert saltwater to pure drinking water on a round-the-clock basis – and its energy needs are so low it could be powered by the waste heat of an air conditioning system. At the risk of losing you, here’s the 101 of how it works. The system consists of two 30-foot vertical tubes – one rising from a tank of saline water and the other from a tank of pure water – which are connected by a horizontal tube. The natural effect of gravity creates a vacuum in the air space above the water column. The lower pressure in the headspace causes water to evaporate at a lower temperature, (this is why water boils at lower temperatures on top of a mountain). Then they use waste heat, for example from an air conditioning system, to heat up the saline water (e.g. seawater or brackish groundwater) to 10 -150 C more than the freshwater. Water vapor from the salt water column travels across the horizontal bridge and condenses in the freshwater column.
Commenting on its energy efficiency, one of the inventors, Nirmala Khandan, an environmental engineering professor in NMSU’s Department of Civil Engineering said “That’s the trick of this vacuum, we don’t have to boil the water like normal distillation, so you can use low-grade heat like solar energy or waste heat from a diesel engine or some other source of waste heat.”
So there you have it. Both energy and water are present in abundance on the planet and if we can use our ingenuity, we may be able to harness and access both in a sustainable manner.

Paul O’Callaghan is the founding CEO of the Clean Tech development consultancy O2 Environmental. Paul is the author of numerous papers environmental technologies and lectures on Environmental Protection technology at Kwantlen University College. He is chair of a technical committee on decentralized wastewater management in British Columbia, is a Director with Ionic Water Technologies and an industry expert reviewer for Sustainable Development Technology Canada.

A tipping point in water re-use?

There were two interesting recent headlines which support the view that we are approaching a tipping point in relation to water scarcity and water resources.
Firstly, Orange County, California was awarded the Stockholm Industry Award for its pioneering work to inject treated wastewater into deep wells to re-charge ground water aquifers. This water can then be extracted at a later date for water supply. What you are seeing here is the start of a convergence in advanced wastewater treatment and water supply. They say that water has no memory, but the public certainly does, and they don’t like the thought that what comes out of their tap, might in the not too distant past have disappeared down their toilet. Aquifer injection provides that one degree of separation.
However water is the ultimate re-cyclable commodity and re-cycle it we must if we are to avoid some of the alarming predictions reported at the Goldman Sachs ‘Top Five Risks Conference’ Goldman Sachs reported that a catastrophic water shortage could prove an even bigger threat to mankind this century than soaring food prices and the relentless exhaustion of energy reserves. The report said water was the “petroleum for the next century”, offering huge rewards for investors who know how to play the infrastructure boom.
So how exactly do you go about playing this boom? Goldman Sachs suggest eyeing companies that produce or service filtration equipment, ultraviolet disinfection, desalination technology using membranes, automated water meters and specialist niches in water reuse.
Water re-cycling is going to be huge, particularly in the sunshine belt between California and Florida. Groundwater, in the context of our lifespans at least, is a non-renewable resource. If you drain it down, it can take hundreds of years to re-charge. Nicholas (Lord) Stern, author of the UK Government’s Stern Review on the economics of climate change, warned that underground aquifers could run dry at the same time as melting glaciers play havoc with fresh supplies of usable water.

There are a myriad of companies out there that can take salt out of water, but if someone can comes up with a) the midas touch to turn the briny waste produced into a product, or b) a lower energy method of doing it they will be on to a winner.

Paul O’ Callaghan is the founding CEO of the Clean Tech development consultancy O2 Environmental. Paul lectures on Environmental Protection technology at Kwantlen University College, is a Director with Ionic Water Technologies and an industry expert reviewer for Sustainable Development Technology Canada.