By Peter Chawaga
Early this year, GE Water & Process Technologies, a multinational chemical and equipment provider, and the World Resources Institute (WRI), an independent research organization studying sustainability, jointly produced a white paper called “Water-Energy Nexus: Business Risks and Rewards.”
The paper hones in on the shared interest of the two groups, namely the supply of freshwater counted on by the energy industry, which in turn fuels water treatment operations, a relationship that’s known as the “water-energy nexus.”
The five co-authors — a group that includes three WRI associates, a former WRI intern, and GE Corporate’s director of strategy and analytics — predict that as the global population and economic development rise with freshwater supplies remaining the same, demand will surge and put the water-energy nexus in a fragile position. The authors cite figures which indicate that in the next decade, one-third of the world’s population will live in water-stressed regions and that in the next 14 years, global industrial water demand will rise by 250 percent. This volatility will undoubtedly pose a challenge for companies in water- and energy-intensive industries, but also grant them an opportunity to reshape themselves before it’s too late.
To help prepare companies at the intersection of water and energy for the coming paucity, the report focuses on three global regions that will be forced to find compelling solutions for water-energy stress. It’s divided into sections about the United States, China, and the Middle East and Northern Africa.
“When we surveyed the globe through the lens of the water-energy nexus, these three regions jumped out as geographic areas of risk and opportunity,” Ralph Exton, the chief marketing officer for GE Water & Process Technologies, told Water Online. “Water use in oil and gas production in the United States, desalination in the Middle East, and water use in coal production and electricity generation in China; these are the biggest pain points in the water-energy nexus today, so we thought it was important to explore these in more depth.”
The Middle East And Northern Africa
The pressures mounting in the Middle East and Northern Africa may be most illustrative of the precarious relationship between water and energy. As one of the driest regions in the world, it has come to rely heavily on energy-intensive desalination as a method of serving its growing population. The report cites a 2012 World Bank projection estimating that by 2050, an additional 72 billion cubic meters of water will have to be provided by regional desalination every year.
While these countries are the world’s most oil-rich, the report warns that the climate and financial impacts of relying on fossil-fuel-guzzling desalination technologies could become untenable.
The authors suggest that the time has come to invest in alternative desalination technologies that emphasize energy efficiency and recovery, noting that reverse osmosis desalination has become nearly 10 times more efficient over the last 40 years. While not much more can be done to improve the central technology, there is room for efficiency gains in pretreatment and membrane cleaning. The white paper reviews thermal desalination technologies that allow for energy recovery, like multi-effect distillation and hybrid cogeneration.
Water providers can also consider tapping into brackish groundwater resources, which would be easier to desalinate, and consider using alternative energy resources like solar power to fuel desalination projects.
The world’s most rapidly expanding country has generated its ascension with coal-powered thermoelectricity plants which depend heavily on freshwater for cooling and steam generation.
CoalSwarm data, cited by the white paper, indicates that more than 40 percent of China’s proposed coal-fired capacity will be concentrated in dry regions of the country. With many climate scientists estimating that the world’s water-stressed regions will only become more so in the coming decades, it’s easy to see how China fits into the white paper’s estimation of risks in the water-energy nexus.
To support water efficiency and ease up on its freshwater resources, the Chinese government has enacted policies to revamp its coal-fired power plants. These include requirements for dry-cooling technologies, water use quotas, air pollution control, and plans for upgrades and retrofits, according to the report.
GE and WRI also suggest investing in available cooling alternatives to save water. For instance, dry cooling uses 70 to 80 percent less water than closed-loop cooling, according to the China Electricity Council. Instead of cooling with freshwater, using brackish, saltwater, or reclaimed sources has proven to be a reliable alternative at other energy plants.
The United States
In its final regional section, the report turns stateside and examines America’s increasing reliance on domestic shale gas and oil reserves and the water-energy risks that this invites.
WRI data puts most of the country’s shale plays in the arid western plains, California, and Texas. This is a concern as much of the gas and oil can only be accessed through hydraulic fracturing. Since water withdrawals for fracking are so localized, they can account for up to one third of total freshwater use in some counties, per figures cited in the report. This, along with concerns about produced water and its effects on freshwater resources, mean stress on the water-energy nexus.
The report advises turning to freshwater alternatives for fracking. These include recycled wastewater and waterless technologies.
Currently, operators do not agree on how highly water needs to be treated to prevent damage to fracturing wells and a universal treatment service model is needed. Some operations recycle all of their wastewater, but even this does not provide all of the water needed for operation.
While there are technologies that have the potential to eliminate water from fracturing completely, the white paper notes that many of these require more expensive alternatives and are only cost-effective when water is completely inaccessible. The authors highlight several waterless fracking technologies that merit further research to drive costs down and create a realistic alternative. These include liquid petroleum gas and carbon-dioxide-based foams, liquid carbon dioxide, and supercritical carbon dioxide.
When taken in full, the nearly 50-page report paints a bleak picture of how the world’s dependency on outdated fuel and its disregard for freshwater resources has brought us to the brink. It is also charged with hopeful alternatives, innovative solutions, and forward-thinking data. By presenting both sides, the authors have created a tool that allows government and industry to dwell on past mistakes and take an informed outlook towards the future.
When asked about his hopes for change in the water-energy nexus, Exton summed up this spirit.
“Just an awareness of the water-energy nexus, some of the challenges associated with it and deployment of innovative technologies to address the challenges,” he said. “We have the solutions to address the twin challenges of water and energy, but more awareness, coordination, and commitment is needed to address the water-energy challenges and implement the technology solutions.”