The Energy-Water Nexus Takes Center Stage at National Science Foundation Conference

Have you ever wondered why big power plants are located next to water bodies in what might otherwise be considered prime, waterfront real estate? It’s because many conventional power plants use water (a LOT of it) in their cooling processes. Given how vulnerable most water bodies and basins are to droughts, floods and, along the coast, sea level rise, this setup can lead to complications. A recent National Science Foundation (NSF) workshop took a close look at the problems and opportunities that exist between energy and water — what is known as the energy-water nexus. People who research, manage and write about the nexus (including yours truly) attended, and we all participated in sessions to determine what research the NSF should be doing to help the country better manage and plan for our energy and water needs.

Participants came from government, academia and industry to discuss the water needs of power production, the energy needs of pumping, moving and treating water, the water needs of fuels (biofuels, oil and gas) and the communications needs from professional societies, which typically focus on reporting academic research but can also function in an advocacy role.

After two days of presentations followed by small group discussions, we created long lists of research needs that can be boiled down to:

• We need more data;
• We need to better understand our water systems;
• We need more research and development of alternative technologies that create flexibility and adaptability in our water and power systems;
• We need programs in place to encourage kids to study science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) because jobs in these fields will become increasingly more important and there aren’t enough people to fill the demand; and
• We need many more efficiency and conservation efforts, as well as the technologies that make those activities easier so we can avoid the need for new facilities and capacity.

I’d also suggest that it’s essential to have better communication to help people understand these concepts.

There was curiously limited discussion of climate change at the workshop. In its place were phrases like “the uncertain future we face” or “our ability to withstand intense storms and severe weather.”  There was a lot more discussion about resilience and adapting to whatever is coming our way with a general acknowledgement that things are changing and our systems need to change too. For example, not all water uses require water that is treated to drinking quality standards, so building water systems that are smaller, localized and adaptable to different water quality needs could address many scarcity issues.

Adaptability can help address budget issues as well. The US is lucky enough to have some of the cleanest, most abundant drinking water in the world; however, much of our water infrastructure is in need of repair and upgrade, with budget shortfalls in the billions ($384 billion to be exact). Many industrial uses don’t require the same high quality standards of residential water, so those water quality needs could be met by water of lesser quality from a localized source. If less water has to be treated to a high standard, then the public won’t have to compete with industry. Adaptable systems address water demand, treatment capacity and budget issues. Expect to see more of this type of thinking in the years to come.

The NSF workshop suggested a future that could look quite different from the present. Today, large, centralized systems deliver our water and electricity from sometimes hundreds of miles away. In the future we could get power and water created, treated and delivered much closer to where and how we need it. Hopefully, as a result of workshops like these, clear heads and forward thinking will prevail and energy and water managers will make informed decisions with a goal of achieving sustainability at the energy-water nexus. Hopefully, some of those big waterfront power plants will be long gone and that prime real estate will be turned back into beaches and wetlands, bike paths and river walks.

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