Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Energy-Water-Technology Triangle - Part II

The Energy-Water Nexus Program

Because the issues associated with water and energy are so complex, the resolutions will require innovative technologies and new, comprehensive public policies, legal approaches and business practices. So assembling a multi-disciplinary team to study the energy-water nexus is a natural.

The University of Michigan put together a team with members from the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, the Survey Research Center at the Institute for Social Research, the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, the Erb InstituteSchool of Natural Resources and Environment.

One of the team’s primary investigations will delve into the opportunities to conserve water in current operations, and to use impaired water and saltwater. (Impaired water is water with impurities that require treatment before it can be used for cooling -- wastewater, for example, as well as water from mining operations, and irrigation drainage.)

"We'll study the costs and benefits of using treatment technologies for impaired water,” said Peter Adriaens. “We’ll also look into the costs of retrofit technologies to improve efficiencies of existing plants. This will entail an analysis of the impact that various technologies have on the lifecycle of water as it flows through power plants. We'll weigh options for water recovery, conservation potential and environmental impact. And there will be a very close examination of alternative cooling systems, which might include new ways of dry cooling or using new configurations of existing cooling options."

By program's end, the Energy-Water Nexus team expects to identify technologies and plant designs that will make it possible to reduce the use of freshwater up to 10 percent in the generation of thermoelectric power.

To facilitate the development and implementation of technology for water conservation, the team members will pursue non-technical issues, including a policy and economic framework to incentivize both industry and the consumers. "The electric utilities industry is very competitive and driven by legislative pressures to implement technologies," Adriaens said, "and currently their focus is on curbing atmospheric emissions. At the same time, it's unclear whether the general public understands the connection of energy production to water, and how this knowledge would influence consumer behavior. We want to give utilities an economic reason to make water sustainability an integral part of energy generation, and explore how water valuation for energy generation may create better pricing strategies."

Christian Lastoskie noted that, in cooperation with those units, the Energy-Water Nexus program "will collect survey data to explore the demand-side incentives for energy -- and thus water -- conservation. In conjunction with that study, the program will analyze market-based policy alternatives in collaboration with practitioners (e.g., LimnoTech, a company that focuses on solving the nation's water quality problems) to evaluate supply-side incentives for the utilities industry to adopt and incorporate technology-based solutions."

This technology-policy framework creates conditions in which there's not only enormous economic and commercial value in developing and implementing technology for water conservation but also ample opportunity for entrepreneurs to do so. This is why the team engaged the Samuel Zell and Robert H. Lurie Institute, which conducts entrepreneurial studies. "Ultimately, the energy-water nexus business opportunities for these enabling technologies require strategic positioning," Adriaens said. "We're seeing innovative companies such as General Electric investing heavily to serve this future need for integrated energy-water solutions. It isn't clear at this time which technology solutions will best serve the needs of the utilities sector, what the market demand will be as the power generating capacity changes, nor what the price point will be to trigger investment."

By directly engaging with business development programs, the team is positioning itself to take advantage of venture investment in clean-technology business development.

The need and timeliness of this program can't be understated. The Department of Energy's Nexus roadmap states that technologies need to be ready to deploy by 2015.

Adriaens pointed out that "successful implementation of nexus innovations will depend on proactive partnerships with the utilities industry and the Electric Power Research Institute, nexus managers at the National Energy Technology Laboratory, and policymakers. It won't be easy, but we have the horses to get the job done."

Additional reading: Energy Demands on Water Resources: A Report to Congress on the Interdependency of Energy and Water

Part III: Developing Clean Technologies -- the Motivation

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