Can energy managers ignore water?

Peter Garforth says prevalence of toxic algae blooms raises concerns.

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The discovery of algae toxins in the water supply of Toledo, Ohio, was close to home for me. We were unable to use water for a couple of days. Inevitably, this got me thinking about the growing linkages between energy and water and how they are inextricably linked in industrial energy plans in the future.

Water and energy systems are already closely coupled. To the surprise of many, the largest user of freshwater is not agriculture, but large thermal power plants. The key difference is that much of the water for power plants is passed through and returned to the water sources with some evaporative losses, whereas agricultural use is more diffuse. After agriculture, the supply for homes and buildings is the third largest consumer, followed by industry.

Changing climate patterns such as the extended drought in California are pressuring surface and groundwater supplies in unpredictable ways. The inevitable consequence will be rapidly accelerating water prices. California has seen an eight-fold increase in agricultural water prices in the past few months, along with increasing constraints and process on individual and family use.

The Toledo crisis was predicted. Increasing fertilizer runoff from agriculture combined with sunshine and warmer water in Lake Erie and created a Petri dish ideal for algae to proliferate. This is not unique. Toxic algae blooms are becoming more prevalent around the world. Managing this will entail significant changes in agricultural practice along with substantial investments in water processing plants and upgraded networks to reduce leakage rates.

None of these changes will come for free. Whatever the reason, water costs are slated to steadily increase around the world. Last year alone saw an average increase of 6% in water costs in the United States. Since 2010, prices have increased 33%.

Overall, industry is a relatively small user of water, representing well under 10% of all the freshwater withdrawals in the United States. Despite this, the industrial energy manager needs to be aware of potential risks posed by water within the plant. As the brief background above suggests, this could come from unexpected directions.

Much of industry’s use of water is for removing waste heat. We effectively pay four times for waste heat removal with no real value added. The fuel to make the waste heat costs money, the water to remove the waste heat costs money, the wastewater return is rarely free, and we pay for the electricity to manage the cooling system. Thus, the future risks around managing waste heat are now tied to unpredictable fuel, electricity, and water prices. This alone should prompt energy managers to explore the possibility to integrate waste heat recovery and reuse it on-site or share it with neighbors.

In areas like California, competition for water may ultimately impact the cost and reliability of electricity supply. At present this seems a distant risk, but it is useful to remember that the power outages experienced in an abnormally hot European summer not so many years ago were caused by a shortage of cooling water for power plants, not excessive power demand. At a minimum, the energy manager should understand the scale and potential timing of these systemic risks.

Peter Garforth heads a specialist consultancy based in Toledo, Ohio and Brussels, Belgium.Peter Garforth heads a specialist consultancy based in Toledo, Ohio and Brussels, Belgium. He advises major companies, cities, communities, property developers and policy makers on developing competitive approaches that reduce the economic and environmental impact of energy use. Peter has long been interested in energy productivity as a profitable business opportunity and has a considerable track record establishing successful businesses and programs in the US, Canada, Western and Eastern Europe, Indonesia, India, Brazil and China. Peter is a published author, has been a traveling professor at the University of Indiana at Purdue, and is well connected in the energy productivity business sector and regulatory community around the world. He can be reached at peter@garforthint.com.

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In other industries, clean reliable water supply, available at low cost, is crucial to the core business as a process input. A large part of the cost of processing and transporting water is electricity. As electricity prices increase, it’s only a matter of time before that’s reflected in water prices. While process water probably falls outside of the operational scope of most energy managers, they should at least take responsibility for scaling and communicating the risk posed by electricity and fuel price uncertainties. This is doubly true if the process water needs significant heating or cooling.

Using well water is a common way that many factories avoid some of the risks and costs of the public water networks. This works well, as long as there is clean and reliable groundwater. In many parts of the world aquifers are becoming harder to reach as they lower, and cleanliness is being challenged by a variety of factors including agriculture and mining, as well as oil and gas recovery.

In areas affected by sustained drought, the traditional assumption that relatively unlimited groundwater can be pulled from one’s own land is being questioned. This raises the possibility that groundwater will be seen more as a community asset and priced accordingly. Again, the energy manager on a site that uses well water needs to be aware of local factors that could cause a rethinking of the water supply and waste management. The energy manager should be ready to have an appropriate energy solution to support directional decision-making in the use and sourcing of water.

Water and energy use and management have always been close cousins. As we look into the next decade or two, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the effective use of either will demand the integrated management of both.

Read Peter Garforth's monthly column, Energy Expert.

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