Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Variables of Energy Production II

 "Water Footprint"

The area of energy production, is dominated by power centres represented by huge oil and gas companies. In the constant race for unearthing newer sources of energy, the cost factor and environmental impacts are more than often overlooked. 

While a project requires prior approval vis-a-vis its carbon impact, the water footprint is rarely taken into consideration while factoring in the EIA. This is especially so in the case of renewable energy sector. The feasibility study of a renewable energy project tends to be somewhat skewed as it stresses on the "renewable" factor at the cost of other equally important considerations, like water footprint and possible irreversible impact on the biome. Business Plans stress on the market potential and techno-financial feasibility, without studying the incidental impacts on the environment.

This section, takes a look at the water impact of various renewable and non-renewable sources of energy production. Albeit, the data is sourced from World Policy Institute and Think Tank groups, it is an approximate reflection on the water consumption of various energy production.

Energy production has a significant water footprint, amounting to about 20% of the water not used by agriculture. While some forms of energy production are more efficient than others, their development is often seen by designers as being expensive and commercially nonviable. Yet in India, renewable energy projects are often given the go-ahead without taking into account the 'feasibility' analysis, only to be scrapped after crores of tax-payers' money has been poured in.

This 'water-energy' nexus and the lack of consideration thereof, is being debated worldwide, even as Indian governance seems largely ignorant of its relevance, randomly granting licenses and permits to projects.

To begin with, there is no monitoring body that assesses the water footprint, industry-wise or service sector wise. Each time, data is required, one looks to the world averages or data put forth by energy companies (GE). As we lack analytical reports and data on the water-energy nexus, this cannot be leveraged for media attention and correction of political oversight. Yet there is a dire need for data and suitable legislation that makes it stringent for every energy production process to support Environmental Compliance and Third Party Evaluations. The World Bank has laid down EIA guidelines, but they apply only to the WB funded projects.

This post is an attempt to remedy on this front, with the hope that organisations and local governments shall come forward to collate data and make independently assessed 'water footprint' tables mandatory to the approval of any renewable project (or other projects, for that matter!)

Let us examine the water reliance of energy technologies.
Conventionally, electricity used less than 19% of water. However, increased demand for energy has given rise to a fresh situation, where water required for human and agriculture needs is slowly being diverted to industrial use and energy production.  In an era where energy production is a significant industry growing at a daunting rate, one needs to examine the water impact of both, the traditional and renewable energy production processes. 

Currently, energy production is veering towards 
potentially more water intensive technologies,
 an alarming situation!

The variables of energy production, factor-in costs, efficiency, commercial viability, carbon footprint and security. To this we urgently need to add in the water factor, vis-à-vis costs, usage and environmental impact on the surrounding water catchment area.

Computing the water footprint is the first stage to a sustainable energy production process.

First-generation consumption in Renewable Energy Production
While the most water intensive renewable energy production is biofuels generation, with soy (irrigated - first generation) consuming 44,500 gallons / million BTUs and corn at 15,750, it is closely followed by oil tar sands mining at 260 gallons. Unconventional natural gas shale follows at 13 and traditional oil at 1 (raw average). And if you think that oil tar sands mining and shale gas are unknown areas in India, then you need to do a rapid rethink.

Oil sands and tar mining is the the latest energy source to be explored by India as an alternate to fossil fuel production, with NALCO and ONGC coming up with plans of huge investments in this sector. In the fracking arena, ONGC has marked a beginning by spudding its first shale gas well at Durgapur in West Bengal last September with plans to drill three more in Damodar by next year. India also hopes to auction the rights to explore for shale gas very soon.  I shall explore why fracking for gas, is the most freaky energy production alternative (in a later post).

While the nation remains largely unaware of what goes on, huge monetary involvement and international deals are being committed to, even where no detailed analysis of water footprint and its impact on the aquifer is done. Neither is a techno-feasible comparative study made available with respect to the alternative techniques of strip mining and open pit methodology in tar sands mining, or shale gas exploration examined in relevance to the irreversible impacts on the environment.

While Hydroelectric Energy generation uses 4,500 gallons /MW, followed by Geothermal at 1400 gallons, the latest in the fray, Passive Solar Technology (using solar thermal collectors) consumes a lesser 835 gallons. Yet, it remains to be explored to its full potential in India.

When I went on to research the areas of Thermoelectric Energy Production, using nuclear, coal, oil and natural gas, conclusive figures were not available. We already know that Geothermal Hydroelectricity is another water intensive process, just as Solar energy using photovoltaic Wind Coal. While these figures are not conclusive, the bottom-line is that renewable energy production is not necessarily clean or with lesser environmental impact. They emit short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) that directly impact human lives, that can be reversed with diligent policy formulation and pro-active measures.

As Tom Rooney, CEO of SPG Solar in Novato, California, says, "What are needed are solutions that 'fix energy without hurting water, or fix water without hurting energy."  Sustainable solutions are desired that don't require hundreds of gallons of water to create the energy (as coal, nuclear, and hydroelectric sectors do)..... and don't require energy to manage the process.

There are only two power sources that fill the bill: solar photovoltaics and wind.  "Both go directly from energy to electricity without passing through heat," Rooney says. "They have zero water footprint and zero carbon footprint."  As a nation, India has more than ample resource of both.

Solar photovoltaics creates no water footprint, as it does not need to be cooled as in other energy production processes. However, it does indirectly need water for hosing off dirty / dusty solar panels. Here again, an intelligent use of technology like installations relying upon vibration and special coatings are areas that need to be explored.

This is a mere window into the high water-guzzling character of the process of energy production, that needs to be taken into account for clean energy evaluations and energy policy discussions on a priority level.

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