Archive for the 'graywater' Category

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

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

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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



Flushing Your Toilet Will Someday Power Your Home

Retrieved from:

“Many sewage treatment plants currently use bacteria to treat wastewater. Essentially, the bacteria help clean the water by eating the organic material.

“But researchers at Penn State have found an even more productive use for the bacteria.

“Led by environmental engineer, Bruce Logan, they’ve designed special microbial fuel cells that use “bacteria to turn any organic matter directly into electricity.”

“Considering that in the United States, we use 5% of our electricity to run our water infrastructure, the breakthrough represents a chance for us to cut costs, while also curbing our reliance on fossil fuels.

“And while this is exciting news for U.S. consumers, the technology has the potential to have an even greater impact on developing parts of the world.”

Read more: Wall St Daily



Gray water systems growing slowly in popularity

“Until recently, gray water had the patina of being on the fringe or new age. And it seemed, therefore, dismissible. But that image is changing. As the need to conserve water drives innovation and demand, gray water is finding a place in landscapes and gardens throughout the Bay Area.

“Gray water — some types of household waste water that bypasses the sewage system and is piped outside to the garden — is becoming more of a fixture in landscape and architectural designs, embraced by gardeners, environmentalists and homeowners. The reuse system, says Teresa Eade, an 18-year veteran and senior program manager with Alameda County’s Waste Management, now is a recommended practice in Waste Management’s Bay-Friendly Landscape Guidelines.

“Brent Bucknum, founder of the Oakland ecological engineering firm Hyphae Design Laboratory and the community-based nonprofit the Urban Biofilter, says gray water systems make economical and environmental sense.

“”Gray water is the most affordable, climate-specific solution to water issues in most Mediterranean California ecosystems,” Bucknum says. “It provides a year-round water supply with the smallest footprint, the fewest upfront costs and the least permitting hurdles.”"

Read more: The Mercury News

Israel Sends Wrong Message About Desalination

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“SDL Desalination Ltd, a company owned by IDE Technologies and Hong Kong’s Hutchison Water, announced earlier this week that it has begun construction on the world’s largest reverse osmosis desalination plant. The plant, slated to be ready by 2013, is the final one of three that are intended to meet 44% of Israel’s water needs in 2013.

For a country such as Israel which needs water and has very limited sources, technically, this is good. However, as Israeli journalist Yermi Brenner pointed out in an article on the Huffington Post last August, it’s more complicated than that. Apparently, over the summer, the Israel Water Authority sponsored a television commercial campaign featuring Israeli actress Renna Raz and having a message that Israelis need to conserve water only until the plants open in 2013. Talk about a bad message. Conservation and reduction will still be needed.

Plus, desalination isn’t a perfect solution. It comes with a slew of pros and cons. While the big pro is having drinkable water, some cons include a high maintenance cost of building and running these plants and possible harm to the  nearby ecosystem by  the waste from the plant.”

Read more: Green Prophet

U.N. report: Let’s turn foul water from mass killer into global treasure

The Ganges is one of India's sacred rivers, but concern over pollution along the river's entire course is growing.

“Contaminated and polluted water now kills more people than all forms of violence including wars, according to a United Nations report released Monday that calls for turning unsanitary wastewater into an environmentally safe economic resource.

“As a result, “it is essential that wastewater management is considered as part of integrated, ecosystem-based management that operates across sectors and borders, freshwater and marine.”

read more: CNN

Analysis: World Water Day Promises Much, but We’ve Been Here Before

“The economics of improving water quality was a major theme during the program at World Water Day last week, so an economic maxim is appropriate to summarize the day: talk is cheap. Rather, more specifically, scripted talk is cheap.

“The key remark, as is often the case, was brief and direct, without the padding used in government-speak to hide meaning. Panel moderator Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, was posing a question about wastewater management.

“This is a simple problem,” Steiner said. “You either filter water before it is consumed, or treat it before discharging it.”

read more: Circle of Blue

Unsafe water kills more people than war, Ban says on World Day

“Every day around the world, 2 million tons of sewage and industrial and agricultural waste are poured in the earth’s waters, while one child under the age of five dies every 20 seconds from water-related diseases, according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

“Human activity over the past 50 years is responsible for unprecedented pollution, and the quality of the world’s water resources is increasingly challenged,” said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

“It may seem like an overwhelming challenge but there are enough solutions where human ingenuity allied to technology and investments in nature’s purification systems – such as wetlands, forests and mangroves – can deliver clean water for a healthy world.”

read more: UN

Not Just a Drop in the Bucket

“A new report released last fall by consulting firm McKinsey & Company declares that by 2030, the world’s water demands will have increased by 40%. Add to that the fact of rising seas, droughts, and shrinking water sheds, and cities across the country are starting to respond with some particularly innovative solutions tailor-made to their varied water needs.”

read more: URBAN RE:VISION

RXDisposal Solutions, LLC of Springfield Township, reduces pill pollution

“The company offers a disposal kit, soon to be released, which turns nearly all medications into an insoluble, bitter and gritty mass that remains solid so it can safely be transported to the landfill.

“No more flushing, no more lose pills in the trash and no more wastewater contamination.”

read more: Suburbanite