A Word on Water and Energy

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | August 20, 2010 11:39 am

220px-Water_droplet_blue_bg05If you’ve been reading Jared Diamond or Brian Fagan, you know that sustained droughts are correlated with collapsed civilizations. This should come as no surprise given that a top global health concern is access to clean water and sanitation. We require water to survive, grow, and stay healthy. More precisely, we are water.

Energy and water are interrelated: Energy is used to produce, heat, move, and treat water. We use water to create energy. Thus, constraints on one pose constrains on the other. Many of us do not recognize this.

Meanwhile, the world population is booming, climate change adds pressure to the hydrological cycle, and global economic growth increases demand for each.

I’ve oversimplified the relationship for the purpose of a blog post, but the take home message for readers should be clear: Water and energy are deeply intertwined.

Our current policies are now shifting to increase energy demand for water for activities such as desalination, long-haul pipelines, deep aquifer production, and stricter water and treatment standards. Concurrently, we are ramping up water-intensive energy strategies worldwide to meet electricity demands, for nuclear power, biofuel production, and other alternatives.

Something’s gotta give.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Education, Energy, Environment
MORE ABOUT: water

Comments (14)

  1. GM

    So what do you suggest?

  2. There’s no single bullet solution, but we should be more mindful of how/when we use water (irrigation, etc) and invest in research and technologies that limit water use (i.e. drought tolerant cellulosic biofuels over corn ethanol). Most important, the public needs to become more concious of the water-energy relationship.

  3. GM

    2. Sheril Kirshenbaum Says:
    August 20th, 2010 at 12:48 pm
    There’s no single bullet solution, but we should be more mindful of how/when we use water (irrigation, etc) and invest in research and technologies that limit water use (i.e. drought tolerant cellulosic biofuels over corn ethanol). Most important, the public needs to become more concious of the water-energy relationship.

    OK, why are you even mentioning biofuels? Biofuels are the single most absurd idea when it comes to solutions to the sustainability crisis, the only thing they can do is make every problem we’re facing worse.

    You mentioned that economic growth will worsen the situation, but you still haven’t come to the realization that growth is itself the problem and therefore the solution will have to be looked for there.

  4. Adding food into the equation, we have the holy trinity of sustainability FOOD = ENERGY = WATER = FOOD…

    Food takes water and energy to produce. More here:
    http://8020vision.com/2010/06/27/water-scarcity-in-the-us/

    And as we try to produce energy, we not only consume water, we pollute it. Shale Gas exploration and the practice of fracking is an example. More here:
    http://8020vision.com/2010/07/06/shale-gas-exploration-the-coming-storm/

  5. azmyth

    Purity of Essence

  6. Eric the Leaf
  7. David

    Sheril:

    Your conclusion that we need to re-evaluate and redesign our water usage is right but your concerns regarding the source of the problems should be reconsidered. Potable water is a trivial percentage of the water usage worldwide and easily supplied except for the political impediments and social problems in some areas. The hydrological cycle will continue on its merry way regardless of any climate change. The sun will still shine and water will still evaporate. Clouds will still form and rain will fall.

    The biggest problem with agricultural use of water is that we are farming marginally arable soil and the dissolved solids in the water build up until the soil is too salty to farm. We use wasteful irrigation techniques that lose most of the water before it even gets to where it is being used. We try to create artificial oasis in the middle of the desert that fall to the same salination problem as the farming. We plant vegetation that is not suited to the climate. We try to create lawns that look like golf courses in the middle of deserts. We even have local ordinances in most places that force people to maintain this poor utilization.

    We build our cities too densely and too far away from water sources to maintain. We pump the groundwater that is close to the high usage areas faster than it can recharge which then collapses the aquifers so water can never refill them.

    The water problem associated with energy production is not that the water is chemically altered, it is the heating of the water that messes up the ecosystems where it is released. The cooling ponds create a funky mix of bluegreen algae and bacteria that the ecosystems can’t tolerate when we release it.

    On its own, desalination is not a bad thing. What is bad is dumping the hypersaline waste water back into the system at a single point which creates a toxic wasteland at the outlet.

    We dam rivers that then create nightmares downstream and silt up in a few years and become worthless. We block the sediment supply with dams and then we end up with beach erosion and land subsidence like in New Orleans which is now below sea level. We totally disrupt the ecosystems that are in the rivers and wetlands.

    About the only thing we do fairly well with water management is sewage treatment and that is only in the wealthy countries. For the most part, other than occasional accidental releases, major water pollutant dumping is a thing of the past. The economic penalties make it much too economically damaging for anyone to risk. The only place I can think of where it is still a problem of any scale is some of the mining areas and even there, it is not putting anything into the water that isn’t leaching into the water anyway. Just as an example, I thought it was really funny in a sad way when they put up a lot of resistance here where I live when they were going to mine uranium. The reason they fought it was because the uranium was going to contaminate the groundwater. They never really made the mental leap that the uranium was already here leaching into the groundwater and they were taking it out and not putting it in.

  8. Guy

    The hydrological cycle will continue on its merry way regardless of any climate change. The sun will still shine and water will still evaporate. Clouds will still form and rain will fall.

    Well, yeah, water will still evaporate, condense and fall as rain, snow or ice. That was never a question. The problem is where , when and how much. If you study the precipitation levels across the globe you will see there is change. Droughts, floods, violent storms seem to be increasing in frequency and duration. Pakistan is currently experiencing severe flooding (who ever heard of such flooding there?). Russia is suffering the long drought since who knows when. There has been a lot of crazy weather lately. It might not all be related climate change, but I would be willing to bet that human activity is playing a role in these events. I think pollution maybe to blame for the Asia problem. All the industrial activity over there lately may have had some unforeseen consequences in regard to shifting the weather patterns.

  9. David

    Guy:

    We really can’t afford to sit around wringing our hands over one single environmental issue that we won’t know for sure will match the predictions 20, 50, or 100 years from now and ignore the other problems that are staring us in the face. Other than some of the schemes for cap and trade and such (which I think are poorly thought out), the things that are suggested for combating global warming are actually good regardless. I see no reason we should not go to clean, renewable energy. There is absolutely nothing that would convince me that polluting the environment is a good idea. I see it as a serious problem when one issue gets all the headlines and all the other problems get ignored. Even if the the changes have been local brought about by human activity or global because of AGW or just natural variation in weather patterns is really immaterial. Whatever the reason, we suck as a whole at how we handle water and have to do something about it.

  10. Nullius in Verba

    #8,

    Guy, thank you. The next time somebody mentions the way sceptics like to cite cold weather in relation to climate change, and everybody shouts “weather isn’t climate”, could you speak up with this comment again, please? Every meteorologist and climatologist asked has been saying that both Pakistan and Russia have precisely zero to do with climate change, and yet, here it is again.

    There has always been crazy weather. There have always been floods. There have always been droughts. There have always been heat waves. Just as there have always been cold and snowy winters, and late (or early) frosts. There is ‘change’ now just as there has always been ‘change’. Change is the only constant, when it comes to chaotic systems like the weather.

    In the middle ages, we used to blame the witches for extreme weather, with as much justification. It has in the past been blamed on God, and on sinful parts of society who have angered God. (Even, in recent times, on that butterfly that keeps flapping its wings and causing storms around the world. They ought to find it and make it stop.) Is it something built into the human mind that in the face of tragedy we feel this irresistible need to blame somebody?

  11. Nullius,
    You do understand we have a whole mathematical discipline dedicated to understanding random events, right? And that looking at the so-called “crazy weather” the slope is clearly towards more heat-related vs cold-related events?

    I cannot predict which of the six sides of a fair dice will come up. But I can guarantee that over time, the average of hundreds of rolls will be close to 3.5. Now, if a rolling average of the last 100 rolls is taken, and over time, that average starts creeping upwards, I know something is wrong. That’s what’s happenning now. Yes, there are crazy weather events. Yes, there are even crazy *cold* weather events. But the hot are vastly outnumbering the cold.

  12. GM

    11. Richard Hendricks Says:
    August 23rd, 2010 at 10:10 am
    Nullius,
    You do understand we have a whole mathematical discipline dedicated to understanding random events, right? And that looking at the so-called “crazy weather” the slope is clearly towards more heat-related vs cold-related events?

    I am sure he understands it. It is just that it fits his agenda to pretend no such thing exists, hoping that because the majority of people aren’t aware of it, his lies and distortions will pass as credible thought. Which is exactly what is happening, unfortunately

  13. Nullius in Verba

    #11,

    “You do understand we have a whole mathematical discipline dedicated to understanding random events, right?”

    Absolutely! In fact, we’ve got several, and yes, I do know quite a bit about them.

    The problem is, though, that I know enough about them to recognise the error in your analogy, which is that you are assuming statistical independence between dice throws. The temperature time series, however, are autocorrelated, which means that your independence assumption is invalid for them. I know it is probably a waste of time trying, but I’m going to grab this opportunity with both hands anyway, because I do so like talking about maths.

    Let’s do an experiment.
    (Seriously! Don’t take my word for it. It’s well worth actually doing it, even if you are determined not to accept what I say.)

    First of all, generate 1,000 instances of a Normally distributed, zero-mean, unit variance random variable. (If you’ve got access to Excel, you can do this with the formula =NORMSINV(RAND()). The Excel random number generator is not good, statistically speaking, but it’ll work well enough for this simple example. Ask if you want more help, or don’t have Excel.) If you plot that, you’ll get a fuzzy cloud of points.

    Now generate 1,000 points of a series in which each term is 0.99 times the previous value plus the same sort of Normal, zero-mean, unit variance random number. (In Excel, this would be A1 =0, A2=0.99*A1+NORMSINV(RAND()), etc.) Plot that out. Now you get a jagged line that varies up and down at random, but with some structure to its behaviour. This is called an AR(1) stochastic process, and is just one of an infinite family of strange behaviours that naturally occurring randomness can exhibit. Take a look, and see which one of them looks more like weather data.

    Now, if you take a few hundred consecutive points of the series, plot them, and draw a trend line through them, the chances are good that you will see what appears to be a strong systematic trend either up or down. However, on recalculating the series with new random numbers, the trend will be completely different, maybe even in the opposite direction. And if you extend the series far enough, all the trends eventually disappear.

    In fact, there is no trend. A simple calculation shows that the distribution of the random variable at every instant of time has a mean of zero. The appearance of systematic trends over short segments are known as stochastic or spurious trends.

    Statisticians have known about them since the 1930s, and the field of Time Series Analysis has developed a wide-ranging toolbox of mathematical techniques for dealing with them. And if you apply those techniques to the weather, they show that so far, we don’t have enough data yet to reliably distinguish a stochastic trend from a real one.

    Sceptics know about them. Do you?

    Incidentally, it’s not true that the warm events “vastly” outnumber the cold; the numerical excess of warm over cold is rather more moderate. On a local scale, there are always cold areas somewhere that are well below the seasonal average as well as warm ones. Go to this page and click on the anomaly button, then page back a month at a time to see. (The zero used for these pages is based on a relatively short history, and so is subject to that stochastic-trends problem I mentioned.) Bear in mind these are monthly averages, so shorter-lived weather events are smoothed out. Weekly or daily data would show even larger excursions both above and below.

    If you’ve somehow been given a different impression elsewhere, (by listening to the media, say), let’s just say that doesn’t surprise me.

  14. Nullius in Verba

    #12,

    GM,

    “I am sure he understands it.”

    Thank you! What a nice thing to say!

    “It is just that it fits his agenda to pretend no such thing exists,”

    I wouldn’t dream of it!

    No. I’ve discussed it before, and I’ve discussed it again now (assuming my previous comment passes moderation). I’m always very pleased to talk about it.

    Quite where you get the idea that I’d pretend time series analysis didn’t exist, I’m not quite sure. Is it, perhaps, that you’d like to deny its existence yourself?

    “hoping that because the majority of people aren’t aware of it, his lies and distortions[...]“

    Ah! You sweet talking thing, you!

    I’d love the majority of people to be aware of it. Why do you deny that I do?

    “[...] will pass as credible thought. Which is exactly what is happening, unfortunately”

    Ahhh! What another nice thing to say! Thank you, GM! You think my humble words look like “credible thought”. Well, that’s progress, I guess…
    :-)

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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.

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