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Addressing the Water Crisis, Decarbonization and Sustainability.

May 4, 2023

The world is in the midst of a climate crisis, and the time for action is now, not tomorrow. The Paris Agreement of 2015 set an ambitious goal of limiting global warming to well below two degrees Celsius (2°C) (1.5°C/2.7°F to be exact), but the world is still on track to exceed this target. One of the many possible ways to meet this goal is to decarbonize our energy systems by addressing the water crisis. By optimizing existing water infrastructure through climate friendly upgrades to parts of the system, and opting for alternate energy technologies, we can reduce emissions and create more sustainable energy pathways. (20% of California’s energy usage is focused on moving, heating/cooling and storing water.)

  1. The Water Crisis

Of the $4.27bn total attributed to global water trade in 2021 (import export of ice, snow and potable water, mineral and aerated water), the US was the top importer with $833m, followed by Hong Kong at $641m. Based on balance of trade, the US was also on record at the top net imported at $652m. Currently, two-thirds of the world’s population are living in areas of water scarcity, with over 800 million people not having access to safe drinking water. This lack of access proven with numbers, and the accompanying substantial trade activity of the natural resource feeds a significant volume of narrative on the implications of the water problem. Severe impacts on health, food security, and economic development are factors that bind the water problem at its core with climate change as the driving force. Additionally, human activity like power generation not sourced from climate friendly means (coal) adds to climate change as it is required  for pumping, transporting, and treating water.

In order to reduce carbon emissions and combat water scarcity, we need to tackle interconnected elements of the water crisis. This means implementing measures to ensure that water resources are managed sustainably, while also ensuring that everyone has access to clean and safe drinking water. This can be done through a shift of attitude regarding equipment or infrastructure, from focusing more generating power to conserving and saving power. Activities that use smart water pumps, operations of treatment facilities, and distribution systems can be updated with modern and sophisticated parts (software, etc.). Additionally, we need to educate the population and implement policies that promote sustainable water use. This includes promoting efficient irrigation practices, reducing water wastage, and encouraging rainwater harvesting and reuse, all with monetary incentives.

  1. Decarbonizing Through Hydropower

Hydropower is one of the oldest forms of renewable energy and it has been used for decades as a source of electricity generation. In recent years, hydropower has become increasingly popular due to its low emissions profile and its ability to provide energy even in tough times like the onset of drought and areas affected by floods with dam management techniques.

Hydropower plants use the natural flow of rivers or streams to generate electricity. The power generated by hydropower plants is clean and renewable, making it a great option for decarbonizing our planet. Additionally, hydropower plants can be built on existing dams or other infrastructure that is already in place. In essence, hydropower plants are eco-friendly. However, there are some drawbacks associated with the mismanagement of this method of power generation. One of these is that they can disrupt fish migration patterns or damage local ecosystems if not properly managed. With regard to oil and gas production, water is one of the elements used in a form of extraction. This process, otherwise known as fracking, uses huge amounts of water resulting in runoffs that contain pollutants and toxic substances. These runoffs, if not managed, can adversely affect water supplies like rivers, dams, and reservoirs that also feed hydro-power generation assets. Another issue is that large hydropower projects often require major funding for infrastructure which can be expensive. Some parts of the entire infrastructure may need to be imported and may have time delays while foreign exchange and return on investment (ROI) may make it all a cumbersome process. Finally, hydropower plants can be affected by changes in weather patterns or seasonal variations in stream flow which can make them unreliable sources of energy at times. According to a report by the PPIC (Public Policy Institute of California), recorded drought in the West Coast (California) effectively halved the normal hydro-power supply average of 15% used in 2017/2018.

I. Improving Hydropower Efficiency

There are a number of ways in which hydropower generation can be improved in order to reduce emissions and still be identified as a resilient energy source. One way is through the use of advanced turbine technology which allows for higher power outputs with relative lower environmental impacts. Additionally, some hydropower plants have been designed with fish passages or other similar patents that help protect ecosystems while still allowing power generation to occur.

Another way to reduce emissions from hydropower plants is through sophisticated management practices that will improve reservoir management, make monitoring easier, and emphasize documentation on, for example, maintenance practices. These connote better computer systems and high-end proprietary software or applications with a commensurate highly skilled workforce. These practices allow for a more efficient utility while still serving customers by generating enough power to meet demand. Finally, certain types of hydropower plants such as pumped storage facilities can store excess electricity during periods of low demand which ensures a backup is ready for peak periods. These features reduce the impact on the environment and emissions levels altogether.

  1. Decarbonizing Through Solar Power

Solar power is another reliable form of renewable energy. Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels convert sunlight into electricity with the use of semiconductor materials such as silicon or gallium arsenide which absorb photons from sunlight and convert them into electricity. The power generated can be used directly or stored in batteries for later use. Solar PV panels have become increasingly efficient over time with variants that allow the generation of more power per unit area than ever before. Additionally, solar PV panels have little to no moving parts so they require less maintenance than other forms of renewable energy. Alternate solutions such as wind turbines or hydropower plants require regular inspections and repairs in order to remain operational.

  1. Improving Solar Power Efficiency

There are several ways in which solar power efficiency can be optimized. One way is through upgrades to panel design. The use of higher efficiency materials like gallium arsenide instead of silicon which is commonly used in solar PV panels today is a better fit for the purpose. Additionally, installation techniques like better panel orientation towards the sun and the use of tracking systems for the movement of the sun throughout the day can help increase power generation. Another way to improve solar power efficiency is through better storage methods like battery systems which allow excess electricity generated during sunny days to be stored and used during cloudy days when solar output may be lower than normal. Finally, deploying solar PV panels on a larger scale can help reduce costs per unit area because economies of scale apply to this power generation method at a point during procurement. Thus, installing solar PV systems in a home may not save as much per panel compared to when a water utility purchases panels to power hectares of warehouses. Furthermore, the Federal Government is enforcing numerous laws related to renewables (one of them is California Senate Bill 100) that will disrupt but address both utility principal’s practices and household water use. The goal is to reduce the use of water in energy generation. Senate Bill 100 in California requires that electricity sources must come from renewable and carbon-free sources by 2045; an updated increase in the state’s renewable resources target of 50% to 60%.

  1. Pump Management and Energy Efficiency

Pump performance refers to the ability of a pump to move liquids or gases through a medium and it is measured through flow rate (Q), head (h), and efficiency (n); terms based in chemical engineering. It is also the capacity to lift, pressurize, move or circulate water efficiently. Poorly managed pump performance can be costly to a water distribution facility or booster pump stations, resulting in downtime, wasted energy, and other inefficiencies. To ensure optimal performance and to reduce carbon output, it’s important to understand pump performance in as near real-time as possible so that pump profile decisions can be made to optimize an asset’s output. In addition, utilizing strategies like energy audits, proper maintenance practices such as one where inventory of spare parts is documented and stored in the cloud, can help further improve the energy efficiency of pumps.

Furthermore, the International Energy Agency (IEA), a Paris based autonomous inter-governmental organization consisting of 31 nation-members and 11 association countries which represents 75% of global energy demand, are spearheading innovation with their initiatives and endorsements of modern technology. The IEA states its purpose as “.. at the heart of global dialogue on energy, providing authoritative analysis, data, policy recommendations, and real-world solutions to help countries provide secure and sustainable energy for all.” Solutions that bodies like these endorse through the EU’s Ecodesign Regulation include modern motors with variable speed drives (VSD), for drills, pumps, etc., that adjust their speed to the requirement of the process or job.

Chart and data below from ABB.


These have proven to reduce energy use in activities related to water purification  processes by about 25 to 30%. The chart below shows that opting for VSDs over other mechanical options (throttling, cyclic control) when optimizing performance for flow control while pumping water, will require less energy for the task. From a sustainability point of view, the drawbacks in terms of disruption to the ecosystem from large-scale implementation range from depletion of groundwater resources to adverse effects on aquatic life. Deeper wells and water sources require more energy for pumping. Thus, to practically exemplify the ethos of energy savings and efficiency for pumps and other equipment, with performance in mind, trade-offs by consumers (recycling and using wastewater) must play a big role.

(Written with the help of AI).