Seeking symbiosis at the water-energy nexus

 By Andrew Burger

Relying on conventional thermal power plants – coal, natural gas or nuclear – is a tremendous drain on increasingly scarce or threatened water resources. That’s not so with wind, solar and other renewable energy resources, which also offer the benefits of emissions-free electricity generation. Rapid climate warming appears to be compounding the pressures, threats and costs. Highly unusual weather systems and patterns have brought about unprecedented droughts in California, Texas, Sao Paolo, Brazil and Australia, for example. The advantages of bringing distributed renewable power generation and water resource management together are widely recognized. Governments worldwide are increasingly turning to wind, solar and other renewable energy resources rather than conventional fossil fuels to generate electricity, as well as fuel transportation…

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It’s estimated that 16% the global population – more than 1 billion people – lack access to clean, safe drinking water. In turn, our reliance on conventional thermal power plants – coal, natural gas or nuclear – is a tremendous drain on freshwater resources. This isn’t the case with wind, solar and other renewable energy resources, which also convey the benefits of more easily accessible, emissions-free electricity generation.

Climate change compounds the pressures, threats and costs at the water-energy nexus. Anomalous weather systems and patterns have brought droughts and floods of historic proportions to the southwestern U.S., the U.K., Brazil, parts of Australia and communities along Western Europe’s network of rivers.

Proponents tout the advantages and benefits that the combination of sustainable, ecosystem-friendly water resource management and distributed renewable power generation offer. Hurdles are high and varied, however, from budget constraints to the risks that come along with doing business with young companies and making use of new, innovative technologies.

Nonetheless, communities and governments worldwide are investing in water resource conservation and efficiency, and they’re turning to solar, wind and other renewable energy resources to help realize their goals.

World’s Largest Solar Powered Seawater Desalination Plant

Creative Solutions at the Water-Energy Nexus

Water resources authorities and industry participants are engaging stakeholders in initiatives to improve the economics and performance of water resource systems. Some utilities are realizing benefits by installing smart meters and automated metering infrastructure (AMI). Some are powering wastewater treatment plants with solar or wind energy, while others are focused on developing cost-effective renewable-energy-powered seawater desalination plants.

Turning to wind power for electricity, the Narragansett Bay Commission and partners in Providence, Rhode Island, expect to save more than $1 million annually on the Field’s Point Wastewater Treatment Facility’s annual electricity bill, which averages about $2.5 million. Three 1.5 MW Goldwind USA wind turbines supplied 54% of the plant’s electricity in the first five months since they began operating at full capacity in February 2014. This is well above the 40% economic threshold set by project planners.

Agricultural development agencies, farmers and ranchers are also taking integrated, high-tech-driven approaches to meet water-energy challenges. Creating India’s first solar agricultural cooperative, six smallholder farmers from Dhundi Village in Gujarat state are expected to begin harvesting solar energy soon, according to a May 7, 2016 news report. In addition to saving on diesel fuel to power irrigation pumps, the farmers expect to supplement their incomes and earn about Rs 4,000 ($60) a month by selling electricity to the local utility.

Potential Solutions to California's Drought

A Pioneering Vehicle for Clean Water-Energy Project Finance

Raising long-term capital for distributed clean water and energy projects is the biggest challenge for planners and project developers. In October 2015 Boston-based Cambrian Innovations announced it had raised $30 million to introduce a pioneering financing vehicle it calls a water-energy purchase agreement (WEPA).

The developer of EcoVolt, a set of modular, containerized solutions that combine on-site wastewater treatment and clean power generation, Cambrian Innovations’ WEPAs enable industrial companies to benefit without putting any money down. Cambrian finances, installs and operates the systems, employing a ¨take or pay” model in selling treated clean water and energy back to the customer.

In December 2015, the company announced Michigan’s Northern United Brewing Co.(NUBC) was the first customer to install an Ecovolt Mini system. Customized for use at breweries, wineries and dairies, the platform removes more than 99.9% of pollutants and solids from wastewater streams and yields both reusable water and renewable biogas.

NUBC and Cambrian explain the system will reduce pressure on the local wastewater treatment plant and produce 11,500 therms of heat energy per year. Using it will avoid more than 65 metric tons (72 short tons) of annual CO2 emissions, the equivalent of planting 50 acres of trees a year, Cambrian highlights.

“We were stuck between a rock and hard place — we wanted to make more beer to meet growing demand, but our community’s treatment plant capacity was tapped out,” NUBC CEO and CFO Tony Grant elaborated…”We’re excited to expand our production, and we’re proud to do our part to reduce pressure on the community’s water system.”

about the author
Andrew Burger
Andrew Burger has been reporting on energy, technology, political economy, climate and the environment for a variety of online media properties for over five years.