Addressing Water Scarcity Through Innovation
By Kevin Westerling,
Conduct a search for “hydropanels” and you’ll find many references to one source — or SOURCE, actually, as this is the company spearheading the revolutionary technology. The term is not exclusive to them, however, with the engineering firm Stantec defining hydropanels thusly:
“Hydropanels are a one-of-a-kind renewable water technology that uses the solar energy to provide a safe and consistent supply of drinking water by drawing pure, constantly replenished water vapor out of the sky. The self-contained system converts water molecules in the air into liquid water, which is collected and mineralized in a reservoir inside the panel, creating high-quality drinking water that can be delivered directly to homes, businesses, and community-distribution centers.”1
An interesting technology for the current climate (no pun intended), which is fraught with both water and funding shortages while the factors contributing to the problem — warming weather coupled with failing infrastructure — only worsen.
Considering SOURCE’s leading position in the hyropanel marketplace and broadening water scarcity, I took the opportunity to speak with Robert Bartrop, Chief Revenue Officer at SOURCE Global, to discuss the current state of drought, water-replenishment technologies, and the role of innovation in solving the crisis.
As someone who monitors worldwide water supplies, or lack thereof, what is your take on the severity of drought?
The drought is having a significant and accelerating impact on water resources. In the Western United States, the last 22 years have now been the driest in at least the last 1,200 years, while abroad experts believe parts of South Africa’s Eastern Cape will soon hit “Day Zero” — the day all taps run dry. At the heart of drought, impacts are very human problems — the aquifers and wells people rely on for drinking water are drying up; and as groundwater resources shrink, the concentration of contaminants in the water rise, making many sources of water unsafe to drink. In response, people are turning to trucking water to their homes and business or buying it in single-use plastic containers. Both processes are carbon-intensive and extract water from the same resources already under threat from climate change. In fact, one bottler operating in California was prohibited from drawing water from the region.
How are strategies toward water replenishment evolving?
Many forward-looking organizations are exploring ways to replenish drinking water resources and, although many are still in the lab, we are beginning to see more opportunities for commercialization. There are many ways to harvesting water such as a well, a lake, or a desalination plant. But increasingly, people are looking at the costs of the delivered solution — the energy used, the water wasted, and the massive amounts of infrastructure required to deliver that water to people’s homes.
At SOURCE, we have developed a technology that can produce clean, safe drinking water from the endlessly renewable resources in the sky right where you need it — completely leapfrogging infrastructure. Our hydropanels are already replenishing drinking water in more than 50 countries, so this work is not only possible, it’s proven and in practice.
So ‘Day Zero’ is not inevitable, even for communities that lack funding for new infrastructure?
That’s correct — if we put aside our old ideas about how water works and prioritize building a water service model that is smarter, decentralized, and resilient. We need to rethink the way we source, distribute, and value water and look for innovation-driven approaches to do more with less.
What is the relative effectiveness and feasibility of such innovation vs. the simplicity of conservation or entrenched solutions like water reuse and desalination?
To solve the current water crisis, we certainly need to embrace an “all of the above” approach. The easiest steps, initially, are to reduce water demand through a variety of conservation techniques, quickly followed by being more efficient with the reuse of water. The reality is that only about 1% of the water used by a household is actually for drinking, which should be a key driver for an increasingly water-efficient house. So, the challenge is to radically reduce demand while adopting a “fit for purpose” approach to water use which provides great quality to water for drinking and clean but lower-quality sources for non-drinking uses like toilets, gardens, industrial, and agricultural purposes. And, most importantly, any measure of effectiveness should consider human outcomes and the disproportionate impact that unsafe drinking water has on our female, rural, and indigenous populations.
How can policy and regulations affect supply?
Our policymakers can have a tremendous impact on our ability to solve the world’s water crisis. The challenge is that the water systems we’re using today were invented in the Roman era, and proposed solutions are often limited to fixing or expanding our current infrastructure. But we can’t solve a modern problem with centuries-old technology. If we want to stem the crisis, our leaders need to begin prioritizing innovative, equitable, and sustainable solutions.
How do we better communicate the crisis and behavioral change to water users and water managers?
From my perspective, both the public and those of us working in the water sector are well aware of the crisis. What’s needed is a consistent and collective effort to solve the problem. We’re beginning to see individuals, communities, and eco-conscious companies demand better answers, which is key to unlocking change. Water systems, especially those in small communities, need better funding and more support as they explore innovative solutions. Businesses should be incented to adopt new water technologies, and, above all, we need to let go of old, entrenched ways of thinking about water and adopt new ideas and technologies.