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Water & Energy - crisis and opportunity

Posted Jun 23 2009 4:51pm
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 Webbe r 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 consultancyO2 Environmental. Paul lectures on Sustainable Energy at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, is a Director withIonic Water Technologiesand an industry expert reviewer forSustainable Development Technology Canada.
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