Redefining Symbiosis Through Technology

July 23, 2019
The IoT’s role in the water-food-energy nexus

THE INTERNET OF THINGS has initiated a new wave of innovation in resource conservation. The proliferation of connected devices, data collection and analysis, and software and machine learning has created new methods of evaluating how the Earth’s resources are consumed, as well as their interdependence on each other. Perhaps the most important of these is the water-food-energy nexus, which is further disrupted with each passing year as rapid increases in population and climate change tip the scales more severely than ever before.

It’s hard to exaggerate the symbiosis of water, food, and energy. The production of water is highly energy-intensive. The production of food and energy is highly water-intensive. Common sense would postulate the irrationality of continuing to unabatedly consume water, energy, and other natural resources at increasing rates when we already know that such resources are finite. Yet, the global population is growing at about 1.16% annually—albeit more slowly year-over-year since 1990—and is projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. The inflated global population will place additional strain on our collective ability to balance the rates at which we use one resource to produce or consume the others.

The responsibility will fall on the Internet of Things—the vast array of interconnected devices, data sets, and software systems—and similar technological advances to mitigate and optimize the growing precariousness of the water-food-energy nexus.

Water, food, and energy have a long history of symbiosis. Ancient civilizations used flowing rivers and streams to convert kinetic energy into mechanical energy to grind grain. Modern methods, like coal or nuclear power plants, refineries, and natural gas processing, are infinitely more complex but still reinforce the underlying principle that governed more primitive techniques: We need to withdraw and consume water to produce energy, and we need to consume energy to source, deliver, and treat water.

Today, freshwater is used in every stage of the energy cycle. It’s used to extract raw materials, to provide power to turbines, to cool thermoelectric plants, and to cultivate crops, among many others. The latter two uses account for a vast majority of water use in the US. The US Geological Survey estimated last year that, of the 281 billion gallons of freshwater withdrawn per day in the US in 2015, 133 billion gallons per day were used for thermoelectric cooling. In other words, 41% of all the freshwater withdrawn per day in the US is used to cool thermoelectric power plants. It is the largest source of demand for freshwater withdrawals, followed closely by agriculture and irrigation at 118 billion gallons per day—about 37%. Notably, water used for thermoelectric cooling was the lowest it’s been since 1970, possibly indicating that incremental conversions to renewable energy sources like wind or solar are having some effect in reducing water requirements for energy production.

To emphasize just how scarce freshwater truly is, let’s break down some worldwide water capacity and consumption metrics. In 2014, a study conducted by E.S. Spang et al. compared water consumption of energy production by national energy portfolios in more than 150 countries and found that “about 52 billion cubic meters of freshwater is consumed annually for global energy production.” According to the World Bank, there are only about 35 million cubic kilometers of freshwater on Earth, of which only 0.3% is accessible. That means that there are only 105,000 cubed kilometers of freshwater available for withdrawal.

At the micro level, 15 gallons of water were used to produce one kilowatt-hour of electricity in 2015, according to the USGS. In 2017, the average US resident used 10,399 kilowatt-hours of electricity, according to data from the US Energy Information Administration. Assuming gallons used per kilowatt-hour remained relatively constant from 2015 to 2017, a little math shows that the average American requires 155,985 gallons of water a year, just for electricity. With an estimated current population of about 327 million, the US requires more than 51 trillion gallons of water per year to meet demand.

The incremental shift toward renewable energy is an encouraging first step in reducing water usage and requirements in energy production and in creating efficiencies in how we provide power to a growing population, both here and around the world. Solar power, for instance, is cheaper and more prevalent than ever before and has no water requirement, aside from cleaning. The Solar Energy Industries Association cites a 70% reduction in installation costs over the last decade, which has led to significant growth in solar capacity globally. According to data from the International Energy Agency, solar photovoltaic power generation grew 40% from 2016 to 2017, from 328 to 460 terawatt-hours, representing 2% of overall electricity generation globally.

Wind power capacity is also growing and similarly has no water requirement. In February, the World Wind Energy Administration announced that wind turbine capacity had reached 600 gigawatts, a 9.8% increase from 2017, and accounted for 6% of global electricity demand. Adoption of wind power is partially responsible for pulling California out of severe drought in 2014. According to the American Wind Energy Association, “Wind energy saved 2.5 billion gallons of water in California in 2014 by displacing water consumption at the state’s thirsty fossil-fired power plants.” AWEA similarly estimates that wind energy reduced water consumption by 95 billion gallons in 2017.

Despite notable progress, change isn’t coming fast enough. Global energy consumption is projected to increase 28% by 2040, according to the EIA. Renewable energy sources are expected to see the most prolific growth, at 2.3% year over year. Nuclear power—one of the largest consumers of water for energy—is projected to increase 1.5% per year, while coal is expected to remain flat.

The EIA estimates that energy sector water withdrawals will increase at a rate just less than 2% per year until 2040, while consumption will increase by 60% overall to more than 75 billion cubic meters. The increase in demand for energy, and water by extension, means that decision-makers at every level—enterprises, utilities, state and federal governments, as well as global governing bodies—must adopt new technologies and policies that can deploy new tools to resource conservation at scale. The stakes continue to be raised, as do water rates, giving decision-makers a growing financial incentive to save water that will become almost as prevalent as the incentive to conserve it.

Elected officials at every level of government must embrace environmental policies that limit the growth or prevalence of non-renewable energy sources that consume exorbitant amounts of water, while also enacting legislation that enforces permanent water conservation laws and adds incentives for new technology implementation. States like California have already taken steps toward such policies, setting water restrictions and targets at the utility level based on usage quotas for individual residents while exploring new ways to supply water. These initiatives, however, rely predominantly on behavioral change and demand reduction, rather than optimizing the supply and distribution of water using IoT and advanced data analytics.

For utilities themselves, the focus must turn to reducing demand for freshwater in energy production and adopting new technologies that can reuse and recycle the water they withdraw. Electric utilities, for instance, should examine alternative methods to cool power plants by investing in desalination technologies that expand their options for water sources.

While public water use in the US only accounts for about a tenth of water withdrawals in the US, water utilities and enterprises can still play a significant role in water conservation, primarily through the adoption of IoT technologies that can enhance leak detection capabilities. Aging water infrastructure remains one of the pre-eminent problems for businesses, utilities, and facilities managers. Real estate investment trusts; large academic, tech, or industrial campuses; and similarly sized complexes are particularly at risk given the amount of water flowing across their vast properties at scale. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated in 2017 that there are 240,000 water main breaks in the country every year, wasting more than 2 trillion gallons of treated water.

According to a recent leak detection analysis from Banyan Water, leaks go undetected for an average of 45 days, leaking about 5 gallons of water per minute. The smaller the leak, the longer it is likely to go undetected on water bills.

While leak detection is the obvious source of billions of dollars in cumulative damages, monthly bills, and repairs for enterprises, smart water and IoT technology can also be deployed for irrigation, indoor, and cooling tower use to track and optimize how buildings and people use water. A report published at the 2018 International Conference on Power and Energy by NM Kumar, NJ Singh, and Archana Dash, listed 19 different IoT applications for energy, 13 for food, and 10 for water, including water quality and safety monitoring, wastewater management, drought location monitoring, leak detection, and water consumption patterns, among others. As IoT technology advances, its capabilities and water-food-energy-related applications will only continue to grow and create new efficiencies in how we conserve all three at scale.

There is, however, another prerequisite for balancing the water-food-energy nexus beyond technology: collaboration. The capital and technology needed to enhance water and energy utilities’ monitoring and distribution capability, upgrade infrastructure, meet energy demand using non-renewable sources, optimize food production, and stabilize the water-food-energy nexus will require close collaboration and innovative partnerships in both the public and private sectors at every level. Resource conservation at scale can’t be accomplished by any single entity. It will require faster, more intelligent exchanges of information among organizations operating in different fields around the world.

Will Sarni, formerly of Deloitte Insights, said it best in 2015: “Good intentions notwithstanding, separate water, energy, and food ecosystems of stakeholders are unlikely to be able to address water-food-energy nexus issues at the scale and pace needed to sustain global economic development and business growth. Rather, innovation by ecosystems of stakeholders at the nexus is what has the potential to accelerate technology and policy solutions to address water, energy, and food requirements going forward.”

About the Author

Gillan Taddune

Gillan Taddune is the CEO of Banyan Water, the leading provider of data-driven water conservation for enterprises. She believes that technology solutions are the most effective way to address critical natural resource issues and has dedicated her career to realizing that vision.

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