Water and Renewables: What Are the Options?

While recent technological and policy developments in the U.S. and collaborations with arid nations will offer many benefits, each project will have different goals and present different challenges in addressing water availability issues in respect of renewable energy project development.

Scientists continue to raise concerns about water shortages due to climate change, with receding glaciers, droughts and diminishing mountain snow packs just some of the consequences. Meanwhile, the world’s population continues to expand.

One approach to reducing greenhouse gases has been more reliance on renewable energy. But energy projects, both conventional and renewable, typically require large amounts of water. That means the long-term physical and legal availability of water resources will play an important role in the siting of renewable energy facilities.

In the U.S., federal programs such as the Endangered Species Act and the push to reserve water rights for parks, wilderness areas and tribal lands are further limiting water availability for development.

To remedy this, two trends are emerging. First is an effort to co-locate renewable energy projects with water reuse, reclamation and desalinisation facilities. Second is a growing interest in new water conservation technologies being developed in Israel and other countries which have a long experience of dealing with water shortages.

Collaborative Efforts

Some states are already taking a lead. Virginia, for example, formed the Virginia Israel Advisory Board to recruit Israeli clean and renewable energy technology companies to Virginia, and to assist those firms in commercialising their technologies and services. The CleanTech Gateway USA Program, a joint endeavour among the Advisory Board, Dominion Energy, and the Dominion Resources GreenTech Commercialization Center recently did just that, introducing several Israeli companies to technical, financial and marketing experts in Virginia.

Due to similar semi-arid climates and challenges in water and other resource conservation, Israeli water, renewable energy and clean technology companies have also been working with their counterparts in New Mexico to exchange information, encourage joint economic development, expand trade and solidify social and economic ties between the two regions.

Meanwhile the federal government is bringing the states together on joint projects. The Water Technology Innovation Cluster (WTIC) is a joint effort of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Small Business Administration. Its mission is to promote the development of technologies to protect America’s waters. Similar to the Silicon Valley model of concentrating high-tech industries in the same geographic space, the WTIC would group water technology companies in the southwestern Ohio/northern Kentucky/southeastern Indiana region. The EPA has invested $5 million to get the project under way.

Technology Developments

New technologies are emerging in old areas. Many utilities are meeting the demand for more water by upgrading the efficiency of their infrastructure and creating a water ‘smart grid’ much like the one that is transforming the world’s electric power system. And the two have much in common. Both are critical to support societal needs, yet they are sprawling, aging and apparently haphazardly planned. And although there is some intelligence at the nodes with each of these networks, the systems are not very effectively networked.

One of the most important strategies for water utilities will be the installation of smart water meters on customers’ premises. Pike Research, a consulting firm based in Boulder, Colorado, that provides analysis of global clean technology markets, expects 31.8 million of these units to be installed by 2016, up from eight million in 2010. According to this research, the annual market revenues for smart water meters will be expected to reach $856 million by the end of 2016, a 110 percent increase over 2010 levels. In addition, global investment in smart water meters for the years 2010 to 2016 will total $4.2 billion, according to Pike. Other technologies also under consideration include advanced sensor networks and automation.

Considerable energy is invested in water production, treatment, distribution and reuse, but current water systems do not comprehensively measure usage in real time. Without measurement, there are no data on which to base grid management. The electric smart grid leverages the proliferation of measurement points, collecting large amounts of data. Water networks do not. But a data revolution in the water space has begun. In fact, analysing available flow and pressure data to determine anomalies in real time, or scheduling pumps and valves according to energy consumption peaks and lows, is already part of the smart water solution today. We are seeing signs of a change, and experts and analysts have finally acknowledged the intersection of water and information technology.

In addition to water conservation technologies and a water smart grid, scientists are looking to promising water-to-energy technologies, such as harnessing wave and tidal energy to generate power. These attempts have historically suffered from a threshold problem — low efficiency. However, new technologies have finally been successful in effectively capturing the driving force in a wave cycle to create energy.

This technology manipulates a buoy’s movement in a wave cycle to maximise and harness kinetic energy to create electricity. A secondary benefit is the ability to desalinate sea water directly using the energy it generates. Although still in the pilot stage, this technology is extremely promising. In addition, a number of new-generation technologies have been successful in converting river, tidal and deep water ocean currents into predictable, competitive supplies of electricity.

Another developing renewable energy technology combines solar energy and surface water by creating a floating photovoltaic (PV) solar array. This technology is being advanced by just a handful of companies, yet the technology is gaining traction. One floating PV array demonstration project is already operating with the collaboration of a French utility provider, and additional projects are springing up in India, California and many other markets.

Yet another example of fruitful R&D is waste water-to-energy conversion. There technologies have emerged to address the dual concerns of water quality and availability and the need for increased renewable electricity generating capacity. The upside to implementing or investing in a waste water-to-energy venture is potentially huge, and new technologies revolutionise the economics of waste water treatment by generating instead of consuming energy.

A variety of technologies show promise in this field. One uses electrogenic bacteria to produce electricity from waste water while simultaneously cleaning the water. Others trap and extract waste water biosolids, and utilise the extracted biosolids to produce a range of renewable energy products, including combustibles for power plants, feedstock for cellulosic ethanol production and pulp products for the paper industry. By generating electricity, municipal utilities can also save millions of dollars in operating costs annually.

Not all energy technologies can be winners, however. The availability and quality of water resources will also help to determine which renewable energy technologies gain favour in the marketplace and which ones potentially fail. Agriculture accounts for the largest percentage of freshwater consumption; therefore, technologies such as biofuels, which require the use of crops, will likely face adversity and water resource shortages unless new water-conserving irrigation methods are developed. This opens the door for technologies that account for and limit water consumption to become the technologies of choice.

It is encouraging to see a rise in water reclamation and renewable energy project development. There can be many benefits to co-locating such projects, as well as investing in or implementing one of the new generation of convergence technologies. But each project will have different goals and challenges. Before you leap into one of them, do your homework, set your goals and priorities and spend the time and money to get sound advice from qualified professionals.

Jerome C. Muys, Jr is a partner and Van P. Hilderbrand, Jr is an associate in the Environmental & Natural Resources and Water Resource Development Groups of law firm Sullivan & Worcester.

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