Guest: Dr. Michael Webber | CTO | Energy Impact Partners
Category: 🔬 Research | Water Energy Nexus
Podcast’s Essential Bites:
[2:11] SK: "[The water and energy] ecosystems [...] are intricately linked in a series of complex and evolving ways. And when one goes wrong, the effects on the other are kind of staggering and terrifying. [...] China is currently experiencing the worst drought on record. [...] In the Sichuan Province, which is home to a big hydropower resource, threats of power cuts are impacting manufacturers including Foxconn and VW, but also suppliers of key materials for the energy transition, ranging from aluminum for EVs, to poly silicon for solar panels, to lithium for batteries. [...] In California, we just narrowly avoided rolling blackouts [...], when a heatwave coincided with our own drought and below normal hydropower reserves [...]. There are many ways in which water and energy are intertwined, and so many impacts of that interconnectedness on both markets individually."
[6:40] MW: "We use energy for water in a variety of ways. We use it to pump water, usually uphill [...]. That's one of the [...] most important uses of energy for water. But we also use energy to treat the water, to pump it long distances, to chill it, pressurize it, refrigerate it, deionize it, you name it. [...] We need the water to be at a very particular quality and a particular quantity at a particular place at a particular time and that means we use energy to get it there."
[8:01] MW: "In the United States, [...] we use about 100 quadrillion BTUs of energy (British Thermal Units). About 13% of that energy is for water and steam. [...] And a third of that, like 4% of national energy consumption, is just water heating in our homes and our businesses, just to get water to a comfortable temperature for our long hot showers or for washing dishes and clothes. [...] That 4% of national energy consumption in water heating is bigger than what Switzerland and Sweden use for all purposes combined in a year. [...] A third of our energy consumption in the United States just goes to boil water to make steam and power plants."
[9:41] MW: "The energy systems are very dependent on water just like the water systems are very dependent on energy. And we use water in a variety of ways for energy. We use water to make electricity, for example at hydroelectric dams [...]. We use water to make steam [...] and that steam spins steam turbines again to make electricity. We use water to grow fuels, like biofuels. We use water to extract oil and gas with water flooding or hydraulic fracturing. We use water to extract critical minerals. [...] We use water for dust control of the mines, or to leach out the minerals we need. [...] We use water to move energy to market through barges and ships. [...] And that's what we're seeing in the news these days, where you have low rivers, which means barges can't move. [...] You get an energy problem because you had a water problem."
[12:19] MW: "We use water to cool thermal power plants. Thermal power plants are the ones that use heat: nuclear, coal and natural gas. And they often use water cooling, which can be a large reservoir pond, lake or river or cooling towers, depending on the design. And about 40% of all the water withdrawals in the United States every day are just to cool power plants. [...] Those water withdrawals are a big use of energy. [...] The number one use of water in America is just water for power plant cooling."
[15:46] MW: "We use water to improve the efficiency of energy, but we use energy to improve the quality of the water and the quantity. We can use energy to get more water from deeper water tables, from a deeper well. We can move that water longer distances. [...] We can desalinate the water. [...] The energy in gives us better water and the water in gives us better energy."
[16:53] MW: "[About half of] your water bill, depending on where you are, [...] is usually the energy bill, just the pumping and the treatment. [...] The water bill for energy is not substantial. Usually the water is cheap. So if you're producing oil and gas, the amount of extra money you pay for water is something [like] 50 cents a barrel or dollar a barrel. [...] So the water inputs to energy are pretty cheap and they improve the efficiency or productivity a lot. The energy inputs to water are not cheap, and they're substantial."
[27:32] MW: "We've designed our energy system for this sweet spot. And now we're moving out of the sweet spot. So we have power plants operating out of their design conditions. They designed it for different weather and a different kind of water availability, for example. And then if the weather gets too cold or too hot, [...] they can't operate safely. And it goes the other way around as well. We designed our water system, assuming energy is available. And if you have a power outage, like we had in Texas a year and a half ago, [...] the powers cut off to the water and wastewater treatment plants, this becomes a public health crisis."
[28:27] MW: "One of the deep ironies of the energy water nexus is that the energy system helps create climate change through the radiative forcing of the emissions from the fuels we use. And the way climate change manifests itself is through changes to the water systems, through acceleration or intensification of the hydrological cycle, which [...] means more intense and frequent droughts and more intense and frequent floods. And those droughts and floods are a huge strain on the energy system. So energy gives us water problems, which gives us energy problems. It's all one big accelerating loop."
[32:56] MW: "There are some business model innovations. I would say there's more room for innovation on the waterside, because it's further behind. [...] We have a lot of markets for energy, [...] we have information released every 15 minutes about the power markets, [...] the water side is much less sophisticated. The information about water quantities that are used in the United States are released every five or 10 years, same with water withdrawals. This is not 15 minute real time information the way you might expect for energy. [...] And the markets tend not to be markets at all - very, very heavily regulated."
[38:23] MW: "I worry that we're going to replace oil resource wars or [...] natural gas resource wars with water resource wars. There have been water wars in the past. I'm worried that we'll have more water wars. That's something I really am anxious about. But that's where, again, technology and energy might be a solution. If we can use energy to create water abundance, maybe that's a pathway to peace."
Book: "Thirst For Power" (Michael Webber, 2016)