Author Archive for milesonwater

Beyond Pumps and Turbines- Elaborating the Social Nexus

Retrieved from the CPUC

Beyond Pumps and Turbines- Elaborating the Social Nexus

by Miles Ten Brinke

Miles, Peak Water columnist and avowed Hydrophilic energy-head, has found his way to Britain where he’s lost his California perma-tan and is now a 1st year PhD candidate at the University of Manchester Business School  after studying an Energy Policy MSc at the University of Exeter in Cornwall.  He’s now trapped in the Nexus, researching the transition to sustainability of the global water-energy system.

The state of nexus studies today is one of healthy growth, in need of a new direction. Google water-energy nexus or do a search in an academic search engine and you’ll be inundated with results. The concept has been taken up by all kinds of different people, all around the world. Search Energy for Water or Water for Energy and you’ll get an even bigger haul. In the concept of impending climate change (and the need to prepare for adaptation around those new conditions) and rising resource scarcity concentrated in key regions around the world even policymakers are starting to take up the call. It’s part of the larger movement to think more cross-sectionally, to stop considering policy arenas like climate, environment, energy, water, food and land in isolation. There are material and synergistic interconnections all over the place, and elaborating those dynamics is an essential first step to understand what a nexus is and (hopefully) managing it sustainably. All this is promising, but when you dig a bit deeper the terms you can uncover what people are actually meaning in any discussion of a “water-energy nexus”.

There are some very progressive projects out there, but they are unfortunately limited in a very fundamental way. In some places, the powers that be actually do get it. They understand that seemingly disconnected issue areas like climate, water and energy need to be managed together. In California the cross-jurisdictional and multi-agency Climate Action Team has an entire work and research block devoted to the state water energy nexus. I won’t go into any depth yet about whether just being on the agenda has had any impact (but don’t worry it is one of the main things to evaluate about California) but there is a related metric: how the state water-energy nexus is being defined. A recent White Paper from the California Public Utilities Commission is exemplary at this:

The Water Energy Nexus (“Nexus”) is the interaction between water services and energy services where energy services rely on reliable access to water and water delivery services depend on access to energy. This co-dependency is referred to as the Water Energy Nexus.

A very good operational definition, clear delineation and with embedded epistemic/ontological/methodological assumptions you could tease apart throughout the rest of the paper in how its used. The only problem is, this is an extremely limiting definition. It is an exclusively instrumental, functional definition. The ideational, social and even wider environmental-ecological dimensions are completely obfuscated. Though I’ll wait to explicate this in depth for another column, this covers only one small part of the full empirical reality of a “water-energy nexus”, of the operational material flows. It covers only the input of water to produce and consume energy and the input of energy in the same delivery of services. There’s nothing about other flows of resources, especially the full commodity chain impacts on socio-technical systems and ecological cycles. There’s nothing there about the involved institutions or people, not even the major market players.

To get a bit of perspective I’d like here to direct any of you reading through this (here’s to hoping people actually do read the column) to an alternative understanding of what constitutes a nexus. This particular and status quo construction of nexus is all about the operational point of use impacts, links defined by the physical infrastructure involved- how much water is used in cooling systems for electricity generation or to produce biofuels, how much energy gets consumed pumping water from one place to another or to treat wastewater for reuse, etc. Think of this as the ‘Pumps and turbines’ view on water-energy nexuses, and if like me you reject that definition as partial and reductive go check out the work of Professor Christopher A. Scott at the University of Arizona Udall Center and especially his 2011 paper on the policy and institutional nexus dimensions. You’ll find a clear delineation of where the conventional approach breaks down, with an expanded view to include the systemic environmental impacts often and foolishly ignored as externalities and the essential consideration of social forces embedded within energy and water service delivery.

The funny thing is, the work being done by the CPUC, WETCAT and others in California illustrates exactly what Scott and his colleagues have begun to study. It’s a bit ironic that by setting out their definition and excluding the social side of a nexus the CPUC manifests it. To truly understand the water-energy nexus of California you need an empirical search for its socio-institutional system boundaries and trace through all the actors and institutions which determine those boundaries. When the CPUC employs its definition that creates a precise institutional logic its civil servants will follow, recursively reinterpreted and developed in application. But how can you expect to sustainably manage a nexus if you don’t understand the role that you and your organisation play in its development over time, let alone the full breadth of the relevant actors, organisations and institutions involved?

So next when you think of a water-energy nexus don’t forget the people and the environment that shape it. Don’t limit yourself to just Pumps and Turbines,

~Miles On Water

Down the theory rabbit hole- thoughts on Nexus scholarship

Retrieved from PhD Comics

Down the theory rabbit hole-  thoughts on Nexus scholarship

by Miles Ten Brinke

Miles, Peak Water columnist and avowed Hydrophilic energy-head, has found his way to Britain where he’s lost his California perma-tan and is now a 1st year PhD candidate at the University of Manchester Business School  after studying an Energy Policy MSc at the University of Exeter in Cornwall.  He’s now trapped in the Nexus, researching the transition to sustainability of the global water-energy system.

There seem to be times in one’s PhD when you just knuckle down and dive deep into the mess of a theoretical landscape of which your project will be a tiny part. January 2014 goes down as my first time. For the better part of the past month I’ve slogged my way through what seemed an endless march of epistemologies, ontologies, methodologies, methods, conceptual frameworks and models, theories and applications revolving around three tragically simple questions. All this fancy academic work boils down to:

What the hell is a nexus anyway?  How has the idea (and real world examples) of a nexus been understood previously and how can that be improved? All that complicated analysis and theorising’s nice but what does any of it mean practically?

These are basic, torturous queries. I suppose you could even say that the entirety of this 3+ year slog will be in the exclusive service of answering them. I’ve spent several weeks now working through weekends, determined to follow the most interesting threads through my literature review to their full extent. I learned loads of really interesting and really useful material, identifying the gaps my work will help fill and building up nascent conceptual models to better understand the actual nexus phenomena. I wrote a paper on the philosophical underpinnings of nexus work explicit and implicit to different possible methodological approaches, wrote theoretical literature reviews…a whole lot to inch forward in my fundamental understanding of the complexities that compose each and every example of a nexus.

For all that hard slog I ended up in a much more clearly defined but much more complex theoretical landscape. For the fist time I’ve got a fully developed idea of how everything is connecting together (at least in broad sweeps) and where I fit, the points of contention between the different schools of thought and arenas of debate I’ll inevitably be dragged in to (or leaping with relish, who knows) and most important of all I’ve got a prognosis on the state of water-energy nexus studies. Brilliant work of vital policy research, but with a surprisingly limited conceptual frame only a handful of folks have broken out of. The human and environmental dimensions of the global water-energy nexus are all ontologically irrelevant or treated as exogenous by almost every single nexus study whether academic or practical.  That is problematic not just in terms of a research agenda. The bounds of a concept in its scholarship don’t only shape the resulting analysis, they have material impact. It’s much the same as the essentially contended definition of Peak Water, what you emphasise or leave out will then shape how you and the people who are influenced by your conceptualisation act. Ideas matter. So part of my recovery from all this anti-social research will be to shed light on the social Nexus.

The beauty and torture of PhD research is that it is an endless, iterative process with as only as much direction as you can cobble together. Today, the past month seems like fruitful progress, and at the end of it I’ve found and fashioned a new shape to the global Nexus. It’s one of the perks of the job. To be a funded PhD candidate is a privileged condition. You get paid to learn about something you’re passionate about, and contribute to the world’s understanding of it- maybe even be part of using that new knowledge in the real world. You’ve got your supervisors, all these seasoned academics and your fellow doctoral students to help, but ultimately it all goes back to you and you alone. Starting out you’re told that if you followup the path, you’ll never again have the intellectual freedom of your PhD research (bosses, grant hunting, etc.). So when I want to go all stereotypically antisocial academic and work through night and day, I can end up where I am here today.

Come back to me a few months from now though and we’ll see how much everything still makes sense. Rabbit hole or false start its one hell of a ride,

~Miles On Water

 

 

Piled Higher and Deeper into the Nexus

 

Retrieved from PhD Comics

Piled Higher and Deeper into the Nexus

by Miles Ten Brinke

Miles, Peak Water columnist and avowed Hydrophilic energy-head, has found his way to Britain where he’s lost his California perma-tan and is now a 1st year PhD candidate at the University of Manchester Business School  after studying an Energy Policy MSc at the University of Exeter in Cornwall.  He’s now trapped in the Nexus, researching the transition to sustainability of the global water-energy system.

The life of a 1st year PhD candidate at Manchester Business School is a study in contradictions. The environment you suddenly find yourself in seems to tear in opposite directions, demanding of you a level of knowledge and expertise you never expected to possess and yet ever humbling with just how little you actually know. On the one hand you’re a semi-accomplished student engaged in intensive research training and analysis (everywhere from the most obscure specialist papers only you and a half dozen other people have read to the fundamental epistemology of social science) and on the other you’ve generally no idea what you’re on about and just make it up as you go.
Then there’s the time you spend with your supervisors. The you in that office stumbling over the simplest of analytic details couldn’t be a further contrast from the confident bombast of the Friday intellectual pub talk. Yet you’ve probably said exactly the same thing, only your supervisor knows just how nonsensical it is. Getting to be a PhD candidate tends to mean you do actually know about your subject, can talk up a bit of the arcane and esoteric. Soon as you enter supervisor zone though, at least in my case and with nearly everyone I know, you’re back down to a 1st year undergrad in competency. Every little victory, i.e. saying something moderately inciteful, is hard won and celebrated.
Doesn’t stop there though, MBS adds another layer- oscillating between exhausting frustration and excitement.  The wrenching tug of war between the demands of your own research development and research training, having a life and working hard enough to not be a charade of an academic. An MBS PhD is very uncommon for Britain, a three year PhD where you still have considerable course work. In roughly the first year you work through three assessed core modules, eight research methodology seminars of which three are assessed, and a doctoral conference. Its a hell of a lot of work, and a challenge to balance just right. You’re told at induction to expect spending at least half your time on the work, its often far more time-consuming. Hours go by staring at screen trying to grasp positivism or paradigm shifts, or rational choice theory. Hours you wish you’d spent reading more about your subject because after all you tell yourself that’s the whole reason you’ve come in to slave away for three or four years on an epic work no one will ever read. There’s something you’re curious about, something you think you can shine a little light on. That alchemy of transformation from clueless student to proper academic you think you’ve set yourself up for did not include knowing the difference between epistemological and ontological relativism…
Annoying as it can get though, taking classes like Epistemology forces you to think much more broadly and deeply than you would otherwise. It gives you perspective about where you and your own tiny contribution to knowledge fit in the history of social scientific endeavour, brings to the surface your epistemic assumptions and the under-examined intellectual baggage of your previous training. It means, well who knows if it’ll really happen but its supposed to, we can go into our theses well aware of how we fit into the academic literature and exactly why we make the choices we do on our underlying choice of theories and the methods we’ll use to gather and analyse our data. Might even make that viva somewhere down the line just a little bit less scary, who knows.
For the especially foolhardy among us, its even worse.  RTP and suddenly diving into the deep end of the academic pool not enough for ya, why not take on a part-time job too. Soon enough a fair number of us are obliged or volunteer for teaching positions, often confirming in a few short weeks every little pearl of wisdom Jorge Cham has for current and prospective TAs. Everything from the expectations of spoon-fed answers to the exceedingly creative deadline extension excuses to the lazy obstinacy have been on offer.  Marking seems especially haunted. Something to look forward to for us all.
I haven’t yet taken up the privilege, instead convincing myself that continuing to work a day a week as a policy analyst (at least for a little while, ya know just to see how it goes) will be a brilliant way to keep sharp on that ever more worshiped totem of research excellence- impact. Here we’ve the final contradiction. Academics now must engage with the material effects of their research, the end-product valued as much for its benefit to society or commercial potential as its scholarship. Yet to aim for this you spend years with one tiny slice of social phenomena under the microscope, all to fill a minute theoretical gap in the literature. The more interdisciplinary and practical your aims the more incomprehensible you get as you cross-specialise. Holistic policy research can be especially maddening for this, and its all pervasive.
Anyone who’s applied for research funding or done teaching these days will know what I mean, but I’d like to think in my pursuit of comprehending the Nexus I’ve gone beyond the box-ticking. I’m obsessed with praxis in academic work, so giving up a day a week now to continue honing those skills and get a chance to apply my ideas (I’m even getting in more practice on using scenario methodology in a practical policy setting) seems a fair trade. Hopefully the sum total of what I produce in my PhD is read by more than just me, my supervisors, my evaluators and any poor sap I get to help me think through my ideas.  We’ll see. It’s a struggle, constantly being challenged in new and ever uncertain terms , but no pain no gain.
I love what I’m doing. Let the learning flow, I’ll slog my way through to the end.
~Miles On Water

 

 

Challenges of Transition- German Solar & European Markets’ Merit Order

Retrieved from Swissinfo.ch

Challenges of Transition- German Solar & European Markets’ Merit Order

by Miles Ten Brinke

Miles, Peak Water columnist and avowed Hydrophilic energy-head, has found his way to Britain where he’s lost his California perma-tan and is now a 1st year PhD candidate at the University of Manchester Business School  after studying an Energy Policy MSc at the University of Exeter in Cornwall.  He’s now trapped in the Nexus, researching the transition to sustainability of the global water-energy system.

Transitions to sustainability such as the on-going developments in the German electricity sector must be understood not only for their internal dynamics but also for the dynamic interactions across sectors and borders. This will likely prove vital to successful transition management, such as in the cross-sectoral work of the climate-water-energy nexus or the integration and decarbonisation of the European electricity markets. The recent success of German solar exemplifies this.

During times of peak generation, oversupply of the German transmission system leads to drastic drops in price (at times even going negative, effectively paying to consume). The impacts of such a process go far beyond the domestic market; central European hydroelectricity suppliers just can’t compete. In the past hydro has been able to provide a balancing role, able to flex up or down its production with some plants even storing up potential energy in an upper reservoir before being pumped back down to provide electricity at times of peak prices. This combined with its mature (though geographically limited) commercial status, relatively stable generation capacity and low costs has made hydro one of the most competitive renewable sources for decades. As German solar comes closer and closer to grid parity, it is beginning to displace hydro in the European merit order of electricity supply. In Switzerland change is already underway, with the big producers starting to pull out from this technology- Repower in particular will be cutting 35% in its hydroelectric investments over the next 10-15 years. Germany’s success has cost Swiss industry.

All the while the German solar industry continues to expand, reaching 5.01 TWh in July 2013, and in doing so creates new opportunity for innovation. Though both the viability and green credentials are being fiercely debated, pumped-storage hydro power plants may provide an answer. Pumped hydro could develop a more symbiotic link with solar. The intermittency that produces such low cost electricity is also of course one of solar’s greatest obstacles in expansion. The infrastructure is not yet in place across Europe to allow for a high proportion of electricity from intermittent renewables, but therein lays the opportunity. The ambition of some Swiss firms to turn their country into Europe’s battery- they want to combine their increasing national capacity for pumped hydro (at 1400 MW for 2012, projected to reach 3500 MW by 2017) with Switzerland’s role in European electricity flows (11% of the total comes directly through this central European state). One of the arguments goes that the pairing of increased intermittent generation with pumped hydro, via a multitude of possible policy routes, strengthens both decarbonisation and security of supply. Limited in the long term, this could be a useful bridging strategy.

Under present conditions, this is unlikely to be viable. In the absence of a capacity market Solar PV and pumped hydro are competing technologies. That is not to say whether expansion of hydroelectricity is a preferable option, or whether this merit order effect counts against solar- these and many other factors need to be weighed very carefully in consideration of their potential for the future and across multiple scales. Much rests on how European capacity markets are developed, and the overall changes to electricity infrastructure policy to accelerate the transition to sustainability.

The management of these transitions needs to run a parallel course of governance through the EU, individual states and localities. High rates of renewable generation in Europe are already possible – Denmark for instance hit 40.7% renewable source power in 2012. Energy storage will likely be key across a number of applications, softening the transition’s sharp edges. Should coupling with solar be taken up as the future of pumped storage, a much stronger energy policy coordination between Germany, Switzerland and across the region will be necessary.

The unexpected connection may precipitate both new hurdles and the means to overcome them.

~Miles On Water

This piece was originally published as part of the University of Exeter Energy Policy Blog.

 

Fossil Fuel Divestment in the UK & Sustainability Through Finance

Retrieved from People and Planet

 

Fossil Fuel Divestment in the UK & Sustainability Through Finance

by Miles Ten Brinke

Miles, Peak Water columnist and avowed Hydrophilic energy-head, has found his way to Britain where he’s lost his California perma-tan and is now a 1st year PhD student at the University of Manchester  after studying an Energy Policy MSc at the University of Exeter in Cornwall.  He’s now trapped in the Nexus, researching the transition to sustainability of the global water-energy system.

Divestment’s come to Britain, in a big way. On the back of rising success stateside and a growing global influence, the fossil fuel divestment campaign’s finally taking hold in the UK with progress already gained at the University of Surrey. I’m chuffed really, so pleased to be able to check in periodically on the whole movement and see it constantly progress and expand. This is brilliant news, emblematic of the curious characteristics of this approach. We’re talking about a very strategic tactic here.

They are the boycott-direct-action of our modern globalised capitalism. Divestment doesn’t seek to radically transform the financial system to achieve its ends, rather it bends to fit the prevailing structure. In doing so these structures can erode, creating  crisis and opportunity for change. As Tutu frames it in the piece, you fight your moral cause by bleeding away profits. Though the current global economic system is a significant part of the problem, by targeting financial instruments you might hit where it hurts most. Take away steady sources of capital like pension funds or university endowments and financing that next big oil exploration project or new coal mine becomes all the more difficult. Pragmatic activism, who would have guessed?

Not to mention how much this all lends itself to the environmental economics approach, simply internalising more accurately the full costs and risks of energy production. That a coalition of 70 investors (worth $3 trillion) is calling on the global heavy hitters in energy to reassess their business plan financial risks in light of climate change and the current anaemic action is another vital step, and an encouraging sign of what else may soon be possible. In moving investment funds away from fossil energy we’re opening up new capital flows to be tapped by the truly transformational projects out there. There is no guarantee that more accurately accounting for carbon risk and moving out of fossil fuel portfolios will directly lead to more investment in low carbon energy solutions, or technologies to consumer our natural resources (such as water) more efficiently. Indirectly however you can bet there will be some such effects if for no other reason than the weakened business case for less sustainable competitors. Reforming the financial system has a role to play in driving forward the transition to sustainability of the energy-water nexus.

I’ve done a bit of work in energy economics and finance and the political economics of sustainability but having joined Manchester Business School I now have access to some of the world’s leading practitioners and thinkers on innovation and sustainability in business & finance. There’s a lot more to say about this and with at least three years left to sponge off of my peers’ collective genius I guarantee you will see this again soon. That is, of using the contemporary political economic structures as they are now to foster fundamental change towards sustainability, and for that matter more effective management of the Water-Energy Nexus itself.

Here’s to People & Planet’s Fossil Free UK campaign and a lot more like it! And to the victories ahead, many as they will be.

~Miles On Water


 

Knee Deep in 1st Year PhD Reading- Spain’s Desal Gone Bust, at a Glance

Retrieved from the NY Times

Knee Deep in 1st Year PhD Reading- Spain’s Desal Gone Bust, at a Glance

by Miles Ten Brinke

Miles, Peak Water columnist and avowed Hydrophilic energy-head, has found his way to Britain where he’s lost his California perma-tan and is now a 1st year PhD student at the University of Manchester  after studying an Energy Policy MSc at the University of Exeter in Cornwall.  He’s now trapped in the Nexus, researching the transition to sustainability of the global water-energy system.

In this early part of my PhD I have been and will continue to spend the majority of my time leafing through the academic literature, getting the lay of the land and hunting out my little niche. All the while I’m trying to connect all the new bits back to what most interests me practically and empirically about my subject. What’s most satisfying is the moment you come across a paper which chimes with an interesting news story or policy wonkiness you recently found, both helping to clarify and flesh out the other.

That’s why I’m so keen right now to give my take on a recent story from Spain- the bubble’s burst for its desal. The short of it is that Spain (supported by a tranche of EU funds) has already spent €1.8 billion (of a projected €2.5 billion total cost) constructing a fleet of desalination plants (51 approved plants) to provide a more climate secure national source of water, but with the recent implosion of public funds and rising energy prices the whole enterprise has stopped dead in its tracks. Desalination is a subject I’ve brushed with previously, and one I plan to revisit frequently.  Spain too, has come up a lot in my recent desk research and I have a feeling it may even up providing a case study or two. It combines a few essential ingredients to pique my interest- a lot going politically and economically (federalist with lots of regionalism and nationalism, forefront of the austerity battles and the EU sovereign debt crisis, a significant asymmetry between electricity and water markets, etc.), a set of environmental conditions lending itself to my research (water resource scarcity, likely increasing aridity, etc.) and ample Nexus examples (from municipal utility management to desalination).

There are a number of really intriguing points to this story. Thus far this is the biggest single push for desalination I’ve yet come across, by a wide margin. The plant in the NY Times coverage (in Torrevieja) alone has the capacity to produce 220 million cubic metres a day, largest in the world. All that has come through an industry under public ownership and management in stark contrast to a liberalised electricity market, with prices for the former kept low and the latter rapidly rising. Then there’s the fact that 80% of of Spain’s water goes to agriculture, and that both farmers and consumers are deeply opposed to any rise in their water costs. Several of the commentators from the piece argue that this is much a more political set of challenges than economic (i.e. toxic for politicians for consumer costs to rise in a terrible economic climate and go up against a powerful agricultural coalition).

Whether or not due to the original planning or the execution this seems text book disastrous policymaking. Desalination has a whole hell of a lot to do with relative water and electricity prices, to go down that road you generally want a rise in the first and fall in the second. Desal water just generally isn’t economic against more conventional sources yet, and more importantly if you have both wholesale and retail electricity prices dramatically rising without any significant water parallel the case for desal all but falls apart. At this early stage energy inputs are likely to play a significant part in operation and maintenance , especially in otherwise depressed economic circumstances. The state-run element of the water industry could potentially have unto itself hampered all the efforts- when budgets got tight and the overspend fell away the incumbent inertia just may have and may continue to slow or even limit the innovation and change  needed (this isn’t just the potential case for public owned natural monopolies, as likely in a liberalised utility market which tend toward consolidation of a few large incumbent firms and high costs to market entry).

That said, it is true that if this was the socio-technical pathway chosen by its government Spain still should have been able to avoid much of the difficulties of its current state. They could have taken on the agricultural interests and made their case to the people that this was a necessary sacrifice, that accelerating the rate of passing on the cost was the price for transition. At the very least there could have been more of a re-evaluation and trajectory shift post 2008 crash (though to be fair I wouldn’t argue that strongly yet without more evidence), the original assumption in the boom years after all being that there’d be a real need for more water. Demand and prices have not risen as expected and the cost living has gotten a lot more difficult for the average Spaniard in recent years, just look at the employment statistics.

So at a glance, looks like Spain went all in all wrong on its desalination bet.

~Miles On Water

 

A Return Long Overdue- Hiatus-Busting Nexus Revitalisation

Retrieved from Amu Darya Basin Network

 

A Return Long Overdue- Hiatus-Busting Nexus Revitalisation

by Miles Ten Brinke

Seems it’s been rather a long while since you last heard from me, but the hiatus is done.

The summer came and went, and you’ve not seen a single column from me. Fear not, it was just the season for it. Autumn’s come and with it a renewed endeavor for the Nexus. Now though, let me explain the reason for my absence. When last I wrote I was preparing to jump into the intensive interim between finishing the taught portion of my MSc Energy Policy and starting my PhD. That is, working over the summer both on my MSc dissertation and as a Policy Analyst for the UK economic state regulator for energy- Ofgem.

I had the privilege of working between two electricity transmission teams (European and Offshore) and the Sustainable Energy Policy (SEP) team on Ofgem’s Integrated Transmission Planning & Regulation (ITPR) project. ITPR is a fundamental shift in the way electricity transmission in GB will be regulated, toward a more integrated and flexible approach in pursuit of enabling decarbonisation, strengthened GB system security and resilience , a more efficient UK energy system and greater integration with European markets.

My small contribution came in three roles- assisting in external stakeholder engagement, coordinating the development of a toolkit for assessing the strategic and sustainability elements of relevant Ofgem projects through the newly revised Impact Assessment (IA) Guidance, and finally to help scope out the framework for assessing ITPR under the new IA guidance. I got to be a part of all that while simultaneously writing a 15,000 word dissertation analysing the transformational potential of ITPR (as of its 5 June Emerging Thinking consultation).

My summer was an incredibly enriching experience but equally as challenging.  Never doubt the virtue of the long slog. Always hope you work at a place with a cheap on-site gym and canteen food. Damn fine group of people there on the ITPR and SEP teams, got through many a 12+ hour day with their help and support.  The opportunities for my intellectual and professional development were fantastic, in particular allowing experience at project management in a policy setting. Between ITPR and working with SEP on developing a toolkit framework for applying the new IA approach (which has a much deeper and more integrated strategic and sustainability domain of the like I’ve never seen) I came at just the right time to be part of some really exciting work and substantial change.

The dissertation was equally rewarding and difficult. I’ve never worked harder or been more proud of a single piece of work. I conducted 20 interviews, a scenario-building workshop with 8 participants (all former interviewees) and analysed 15 written consultation responses. I even attempted to apply the theoretical perspective I plan to use for my PhD.  It turned out alright.  The result is far from perfect, but one which I’m hoping to contribute to the live debate about the further development of ITPR. For both my dissertation and overall grade I finished with Distinction.

Three very intense months cushioned by some time off before and after and now the next stage. As of mid-September I have no begun my PhD Business and Management at the University of Manchester Business School. My research title still has a nice twang to it- Enabling the Water-Energy Nexus Socio-technical Transition to Sustainability: Case Studies in the United Kingdom, American Southwest and the World’s Desert Lands. I’ve a very busy and hopefully productive first year ahead. First full week has gone well, very excited to get moving again.

I’m back, please do join me!!

~ Miles on Water

400 ppm: Overcoming the Grind of Reality to Revitalise the Dream

Retrieved from The Guardian

 

400 ppm: Overcoming the Grind of Reality to Revitalise the Dream

by Miles Ten Brinke

Miles, Peak Water columnist and avowed Hydrophilic energy-head, has found his way to Britain where he’s lost his California perma-tan and is studying an Energy Policy MSc at the University of Exeter on a Fulbright.

Well friends, its been some time since I’ve last written. So much has happened in these past few weeks, but one story in particular grabs me. I hope you forgive the near cliche of it. Take this piece as a meditation, and a call to action.

In our status quo struggle we’ve crossed the rubicon folks, and in the worst way. We’ve now reached CO2 levels of 400 ppm. That atmospheric concentration hasn’t been seen for millions of years, on a very different Earth. Measured by that cornerstone of global climate science, the Mauna Loa Observatory, this single reading has sparked a fierce debate among climate advocates and activists. The speed of change is atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide has been devastating. The fossil economy status quo marches on, its progression not even halted by economic chaos. Our focus must be on what to do about it.

What does this milestone mean for the Nexus?  A complex question, one we make take decades in attempting to answer. A question the likes of which will hopefully spark up a brilliant global conversation with countless papers, essays, books and most importantly calls to action.

To start with, here’s my easy answer: in sheer practical terms Nexus thinking will have to be increasingly recognised as not only useful but an existential necessity. In a world of increasingly complex weather systems policymakers must become much more acutely aware of the interconnections between these essential resource systems- shifting rains means shifting water consumption and agricultural planning which all shift energy systems. For those of us in the UK, just look to the fluctuations of extreme precipitation over the past few years. British farmers have struggled to keep up with droughts, the flooding and mutations of the seasons. Water crises are springing up and worsening the world over. An integrated strategic policy regime will be essential to manage not just the transition to the new realities of a 400+ ppm planet but everything that comes with it. This not only includes the complex science of feedback mechanisms and tipping points, but of the policy decisions of private and public sectors all around us. There’s more to it than even this.

The hard answer has to do with the contingencies and harsh new realities crossing the 400 ppm milestone portends. The 400 ppm is a somewhat arbitrary marker in terms of policy-having now crossed it does little to impact our current trajectory. Its a symbol, a signpost decades ago folks strove to ensure we’d avoid and one we must now come to terms with. Two thoughts struck me immediately upon first reading the news: the stakes just got orders of magnitude more severe and a numbing sense of impotence. The longer we take to stabilise and then cut emissions, the worse the cumulative and synergistic effects. Worse for me is the bitter taste of it all, that up till now the decades long fight to circumvent destructive anthropogenic climate change has failed spectacularly, devastatingly. With the industrial rise of China and India and many other states on their way it makes one wonder if in fact we should expect emissions to accelerate in the coming years. Its the kind of thing to inspire nihilism in the most passionate of dreamers. Particularly when one looks to the current state of affairs in North America and Europe. These regions and their states locked into other battles and fundamental debates or actively undermining climate, sustainable energy and environmental policy. That nexus of interconnections will in fact exacerbate the dangers.What do you with that, when the victories turn so small and stale and when the path looks irreversible?

In philosophy and fundamental introspection we can find our answers to this. Each of you must sort this in your own way; not along, together with your fellows yes, but recognising there is no universal solution. There is no hope, no meaning but that which we make for ourselves or can recognise in the world.

My personal starting point is the more nihilistic realism- recognising both the grim failures and the brilliant green shoots growing beneath them. Yes, it does not look good right now and yes as far as I can tell today we have little hope of succeeding. At the same time there is an incredible array of people and organisations around the world working on all the different dimensions of these problems every day, dedicating their lives in pursuit of real change. And they are succeeding, constantly. The problem is, that wave which is their collective has yet to crest. And much as before, even when change is achieved it is by no means permanent or always constructive. Just look to the 1992 Rio conference and its aftermath for the former and the historic approach of conservation policy to human-nature bounds for the latter. One of the few certainties I see is that the road ahead holds even more pitfalls and danger than the struggle behind. And such opportunity, such promise.

In accepting what I see as the simple lay of the land as I have to deal with it, my motivation gets much simpler. This reality touches every part of the human experience, a real problem we can fix. As big as the challenges are in climate, environmental, water, energy, etc. policy they are all based on conditions subject to change. Economies boom and bust, politics stagnates and revitalises. And that is the key of it, the world is in constant flux. Transitions of the kind i’m working towards in energy and water have happened before, and will happen again. In a complex sequence of events what once seemed impossible wrecks the incumbent momentum and replaces the establishment. The industrial revolution was fed on coal, the 20th century on oil. Grounded in a realistic understanding of present conditions, we can study and facilitate these transition elements. The energy-water Nexus in all its interconnections will play a vital role.

Revolutions don’t come easy. The cost will be high, hope for success low. To come anywhere close, we face an odyssey. A new 21st century global transition awaits at the end of that horizon.

Dare we try?

~Miles On Water

Ontology, Ethics and Epistemology in the Nexus

Retrieved from Philosophicalquest.org

 

Ontology, Ethics and Epistemology in the Nexus

by Miles Ten Brinke

Miles, Peak Water columnist and avowed Hydrophilic energy-head, has found his way to Britain where he’s lost his California perma-tan and is studying an Energy Policy MSc at the University of Exeter on a Fulbright.

Today I’ve been thinking a lot about philosophy. In part I’ve been doing this as I figure out my next steps (dissertation, summer job and possible PhD) and sort out my research ontology and epistemology.  Then, earlier a friend sent a youtube video on Kantian ethics. Now I’ve got to thinking back to my class at Berkeley on Environmental Philosophy and Ethics and all my other Humanities courses at Mount San Jacinto College. Now I’m not just going to be ruminating over some obscure thinker or abstract theses, philosophy is something we live everyday. Whether challenged or unchallenged as an actor in the Nexus you and I have been fundamentally shaped by our individual and collective ontologies, ethics and epistemologies.
Before going into the meat of this it’ll be valuable to give a quick rundown of what I mean. First the jargon. We’ve all probably heard these terms before but its useful to revisit them, at least in the context of this column.
Ethics, an organised system of moral principles- paradigms of the good life. There are two main categories here, categorical and consequential. In the formal what is ethical is determined by the ends (think cost-benefit analysis), while for the former its more a right vs. wrong approach (ends can never justify the means). A further distinction comes where u centre moral value- between the rational actor of egocentrism, the greater good of homocentrism and the holism of ecocentrism.
Next we have ontology-  a kind of theory of reality (being is used formally in philosophy, but not so helpful here). For our purposes that’s limited to applied ontology- the understanding of how the world works in science. In social science for instance you have about four different approaches used. They all differ on what is objective and how we might come to understand the world.
Finally, there’s epistemology- the study of knowledge. Every field of inquiry and practice has its own epistemology, shaping practitioners pursuit of data and analysis. We use it figure out what to use as evidence, how it may analysed and different types of causation determined.
How we all understand socio-environmental forces and natural resource management is entirely dependent upon the philosophy underpinning each position. Lets start by examining the historical status quo- resource policy on energy and water. Whether with a command economy or command and control approach on the one hand or laissez-faire or neoliberal market mechanism approach natural systems are  valuable only insofar as their use as economic inputs. The former is often informed by a utilitarian (branch of consequentialism that is the basis of cost-benefit analysis) homocentrism, focused on delivering the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people. The later is dominated by an atomistic egocentrism focus on the individual whose pursuit of personal gain not only right categorically but will produce the best results for society. Whether through direct regulation or markets the negative impacts of natural resource exploitation are externalised, with the long term impacts and on human beings and socio-environmental interconnections understudied or ignored.
To extend that point further, you can compare mainstream social science as it informs policy and more critical, environmental and interdisciplinary approaches. Mainstream economics applies the logic of the physical and biological sciences to social forces- it treats people as rational actors acting in predictable patterns which can be modelled and maximised. The problem is that human beings aren’t limited to individual rationality but are subject to societal, cultural, religious, and normative forces external to them. Furthermore, no one has access to perfect information and in every situation there is an unequal distribution of power (be it in knowledge, strength, wealth or otherwise) between actors. Just as important is that the full life-cycle cost of exploiting natural resources has not historically been accounted for.
Other fields such as Anthropology, Environmental Economics, Science and Technology Studies, Global Environmental Governance, Political Ecology and Sociotechnical Transitions Theory all address these issues. Without rejecting the idea of an objective reality, and therefore empirical study and evidence-based policymaking, these disciplines bring to bear a much more complicated ontology and understanding of both human behaviour and socio-natural processes. They provide new methods of study such as ethnography and discourse analysis. They provide a new avenue for more effectively accounting for environmental costs in policymaking such as with payments for ecosystem services. Mainly however, they broaden our understanding and our set of tools for effective action.
Nexus thinking unto itself is a product of this evolution, of an expanding interdisciplinary approach to environmental problem solving. Cost-benefit approaches and economics will continue to dominate policy debates, we need be aware of that and the limitations of approaches that would simply improve this (such as insuring environmental damage is quantified and included as commensurable to profit in project costs) rather induce systemic change. The solution isn’t in attacking the status quo for its deficiencies, but in providing a viable alternative pathway for the future.
All of it starts with what we think we know.
~Miles On Water

 

Desal or Not?- Big Meets Small in the Nexus with the Future Up for Grabs

Retrieved from Centerpeace.org

 

Desal or Not?- Big Meets Small in the Nexus with the Future Up for Grabs

by Miles Ten Brinke

Miles, Peak Water columnist and avowed Hydrophilic energy-head, has found his way to Britain where he’s lost his California perma-tan and is studying an Energy Policy MSc at the University of Exeter on a Fulbright.

Desalinisation is a fascinating expression of the water-energy nexus, and its inherent contention. Though there are many technical approaches to actually achieving the desired results, the idea is simply to produce fresh water from salt water. Depending upon your perspective, this technology and it likely approach to water management can generally be one of two things- a brilliant technical fix or a socio-environmental nightmare.

Regardless of one’s positionality, there is a strong backing (powerful stakeholders some of whom have access to lots of capital) for desalinisation and the problem it purports to solve will only spread out and increase in intensity over time. Should it prove technically feasible at some signifiant scale, we may see more than just demonstration plants in the next ten years and increasing commercialisation by 2050. An interesting question for folks considered about more than just security of supply is the sustainability of desal technologies. One interesting prospect for instance is the potential for solar powered desalination.

This past month has been incredibly busy for me, in no small way due to progress on my pursuit of a PhD. As I’ve moved through the application process the project has been refined and my ideas polished. My focus will be on arid case studies, places with scarcity of both energy and water (a major hypothesis being that there’s cross causality there). The conditions that make desal look viable, its potential impacts and the socio-technical system itself all exemplify this. As a part of a centralised resource management plan, desal would include both energy for water (the desalinisation process itself is extremely energy intensive, and so is moving around all that water from points of production to its diffused consumption)  and water for energy (centralised power which is usually produced using large thermal electricity plants which consume fuels such as coal, gas and uranium often use water as their primary coolant). Desalinisation in many ways represents a central dualism in socio-environmental policymaking, one I hope to explore at length in my research.

That is, between two broad scales of technology and governance structures- technocratic centralisation vs. democratised dispersion (for those of you familiar with energy policy, its essentially Amory Lovin’s Road Not Taken- Hard Path vs. Soft Path, with more socio-political considerations added in). Briefly now let me tool this apart before going back to Desal and a specific case. On one hand you have the technology on a continuum of degree of centralisation (really just big vs. small). Think nuclear power plant versus solar panel. On the other you have decision making, and how it’s concentrated. In a strong technocratic system, its an unelected elite of experts making all the calls with little or no transparency and access by other stakeholders. The opposite of that would be a system with very diffuse decision-making with non-experts and regular folks having a lot of input in a very open system. Its your classic top-down versus bottom-up divide. Even with water and the Nexus itself I often relate things back to this thinking. To keep it simple lets just think of it as big vs. small (both in tech and governance).

Near the end of February, the New York Times published a piece on the development of a $1 billion desalinisation plant in Carlasbad, California which began construction in late 2012. The San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) has agreed to purchase 48,000 acre-feet of water (one of the main units of measure in water policy, one acre-foot being equivalent to about 326,000 American gallons) per year at $2,000 an acre-foot. This will supply 7% of total water supplies for 30 years.

Beyond of the socio-environmental considerations of this reverse-osmosis plant the central debate in the area is on cost. Both the firm building the plant, Poseidon Resources and the SDCWA are betting on a continuation and acceleration of the trend in rising water demand.  In its scenario calculations the SDCWA estimates that this may be cheaper than status quo cost projections by 2024. They currently get their water from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California for about $1000 per acre-foot. Its a gamble, but both the agency, the firm and their backers argue that in a time of dwindling fresh water supplies and growth demand will inevitably rise. Critics, both from environmental NGOs and independent research institute argue strongly that not only will this raise consumer water bills but also electricity as more energy is needed to power the plant, and that there’s no guarantee on the development of the region’s shifting thirst. Their proposed alternative is greater investment in demand side management (DSM), that there isn’t a need for a supply-driven drive to forge a new market for desal plants to solve our water crisis.

This is a classic case of big vs. small. Right now there’s only one other commercial scale desal plant in the US- in Tampa Bay, Florida. It’s not been a dramatic success for the burgeoning industry, lots of costly mistakes. That goes with the territory, risks are always higher at the opening of a market. Over time the costs may go down and with the right governmental support there very well may be a boom. The problem is that even should one accept it as a viable and acceptable approach, desalinisation will in all likelihood dis-incentivise water conservation & reuse and investment in efficiency. Think about it, you invest all this money and sign a contract for guaranteed supply. If you can reach a point where this becomes the new cheap option, why go back to sorting out your demand?

It really does matter where you start. From a supply orientation (big) you have a shortage that needs to be plugged by any means necessary and using economies of scale. Demand orientation (little) means focusing on using what’s already available more effectively and working to change the conditions that caused the shortage to begin with. The former generally does little to curb demand growth and is resource inefficient, but the latter risks supply insecurity if DSM isn’t effective enough.

I’m going to leave you all with a rather unfair quandary now, a dichotomy (of sorts) to revisit soon. No matter what we decide, we set ourselves down a trajectory which may not be easy to change further down the line. This is infrastructure we’re talking about, decisions made at one moment will shape decades to come.

Question is, which do we bet our money on?

~ Miles on Water