Powering the Planet: How Do We Balance Energy, Water and Climate?
By David L. Chandler
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
In deciding how best to meet the world’s growing needs for energy, the answers depend crucially on how the question is framed. Looking for the most cost-effective path provides one set of answers; including the need to curtail greenhouse-gas emissions gives a different picture.
Adding the need to address looming shortages of fresh water, it turns out, leads to a very different set of choices.
That’s one conclusion of a new study led by Mort Webster, an associate professor of engineering systems at MIT, published in the journal, Nature Climate Change.
The study, he says, makes clear that it is crucial to examine these needs together before making decisions about investments in new energy infrastructure, where choices made today could continue to affect the water and energy landscape for decades to come.
The intersection of these issues is particularly critical because of the strong contribution of the electricity-generation industry to overall greenhouse gas emissions, and the strong dependence of most present-day generating systems on abundant supplies of water. Furthermore, while power plants are a strong contributor to climate change, one expected result of that climate change is a significant change of rainfall patterns, likely leading to regional droughts and water shortages.
Surprisingly, Webster says, this nexus is a virtually unexplored area of research.
“When we started this work,” he says, “we assumed that the basic work had been done, and we were going to do something more sophisticated. But then we realized nobody had done the simple, dumb thing”—that is, looking at the fundamental question of whether assessing the three issues in tandem would produce the same set of decisions as looking at them in isolation.
The answer, they found, was a resounding no. “Would you build the same things, the same mix of technologies, to get low carbon emissions and to get low water use?” Webster asks. “No, you wouldn’t.”
In order to balance dwindling water resources against the growing need for electricity, a quite different set of choices would need to be made, he says—and some of those choices may require extensive research in areas that currently receive little attention, such as the development of power-plant cooling systems that use far less water, or none at all.
Even where the needed technologies do exist, decisions on which to use for electricity production are strongly affected by projections of future costs and regulations on carbon emissions, as well as future limits on water availability. For example, solar power is not currently cost-competitive with other sources of electricity in most locations — but when balanced against the need to reduce emissions and water consumption, it may end up as the best choice, he says.
“You need to use different cooling systems, and potentially more wind and solar energy, when you include water use than if the choice is just driven by carbon dioxide emissions alone,” Webster says.
His study focused on electricity generation in the year 2050 under three different scenarios: purely cost-based choices; with a requirement for a 75 percent reduction in carbon emissions; or with a combined requirement for emissions reduction and a 50 percent reduction in water use.
To deal with the large uncertainties in many projections, Webster and his co-authors used a mathematical simulation in which they tried 1,000 different possibilities for each of the three scenarios, varying each of the variables randomly within the projected range of uncertainty. Some conclusions showed up across hundreds of simulations, despite the uncertainties.
Based on cost alone, coal would generate about half of the electricity, whereas under the emissions-limited scenario that would drop to about one-fifth, and under the combined limitations, it would drop to essentially zero. While nuclear power would make up about 40 percent of the mix under the emissions-limited scenario, it plays almost no role at all in either the cost-alone or the emissions-plus-water scenarios.
“We’re really targeting not just policymakers, but also the research community,” Webster says. Researchers “have thought a lot about how do we develop these low-carbon technologies, but they’ve given much less thought to how to do so with low amounts of water,” he says.
While there has been some study of the potential for air-cooling systems for power plants, so far no such plants have been built, and research on them has been limited, Webster says.
Now that they have completed this initial study, Webster and his team will look at more detailed scenarios about “how to get from here to there.” While this study looked at the mix of technologies needed in 2050, in future research they will examine the steps needed along the way to reach that point.
“What should we be doing in the next 10 years?” he asks. “We have to look at the implications all together.”
Visit EcoWatch’s RENEWABLES page for more related news on this topic.
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After sustained declines in the number of COVID-19 cases over recent months, restrictions are starting to ease across the United States. Numbers of new cases are falling or stable at low numbers in some states, but they are surging in many others. Overall, the U.S. is experiencing a sharp increase in the number of new cases a day, and by late June, had surpassed the peak rate of spread in early April.
Seven day rolling average of number of people confirmed to have COVID-19, per day (not including today). This chart gets updated once per day with data by Johns Hopkins. Johns Hopkins university doesn't provide reliable data for March 12 and March 13. Johns Hopkins CSSE Get the data
To Have a Second Wave, the First Wave Needs to End.<p>A wave of an infection describes a large rise and fall in the number of cases. There isn't a precise epidemiological definition of when a wave begins or ends.</p><p>But with talk of a <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/27/new-covid-19-clusters-across-world-spark-fear-of-second-wave" target="_blank">second wave in the news</a>, as an <a href="https://www.american.edu/cas/faculty/mhawkins.cfm" target="_blank">epidemiologist and public health researcher</a>, I think there are two necessary factors that must be met before we can colloquially declare a second wave.</p><p>First, the virus would have to be controlled and transmission brought down to a very low level. That would be the end of the first wave. Then, the virus would need to reappear and result in a large increase in cases and hospitalizations.</p><p>Many countries in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0908-8" target="_blank">Europe and Asia have successfully ended the first wave</a>. <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/08/new-zealand-abandons-covid-19-restrictions-after-nation-declared-no-cases" target="_blank">New Zealand</a> and <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/08/how-iceland-beat-the-coronavirus" target="_blank">Iceland</a> have also made it through their first waves and are now essentially coronavirus-free, with very low levels of community transmission and only a handful of active cases currently.</p>
Different States, Different Trends<p>Looking at U.S. numbers as a whole hides what is really going on. Different states are in <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html" target="_blank">vastly different situations right now</a> and when you look at states individually, four major categories emerge.</p><ol><li>Places where the first wave is ending: States in the Northeast and a few scattered elsewhere experienced large initial spikes but were able to mostly contain the virus and substantially brought down new infections. <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/new-york-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">New York</a> is a good example of this.</li><li>Places still in the first wave: Several states in the South and West – see <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/texas-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Texas</a> and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/california-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">California</a> – had some cases early on, but are now seeing massive surges with no sign of slowing down.</li><li>Places in between: Many states were hit early in the first wave, managed to slow it down, but are either at a plateau – like <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/north-dakota-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">North Dakota</a> – or are now seeing steep increases – like <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/oklahoma-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Oklahoma</a>.</li><li>Places experiencing local second waves: Looking only at a state level, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/hawaii-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Hawaii</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/montana-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Montana</a> and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/alaska-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Alaska</a> could be said to be experiencing second waves. Each state experienced relatively small initial outbreaks and was able to reduce spread to single digits of daily new confirmed cases, but are now all seeing spikes again.</li></ol><p>The trends aren't surprising based on how states have been dealing with reopening. The virus will go wherever there are susceptible people and until the U.S. stops community spread across the entire country, the first wave isn't over.</p>
What Could a Second Wave Look Like?<p>It is possible – though at this point it seems unlikely – that the U.S. could control the virus before a vaccine is developed. If that happens, it would be time to start thinking about a second wave. The question of what it might look like depends in large part on everyone's actions.</p><p>The <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1086%2F592454" target="_blank">1918 flu pandemic</a> was characterized by a mild first wave in the winter of 1917-1918 that went away in summer. After restrictions were lifted, people very quickly went back to pre-pandemic life. But a second, deadlier strain came back in fall of 1918 and third in spring of 1919. In total, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/1918-pandemic-history.htm" target="_blank">more than 500 million people were infected</a> worldwide and upwards of <a href="https://theconversation.com/compare-the-flu-pandemic-of-1918-and-covid-19-with-caution-the-past-is-not-a-prediction-138895" target="_blank">50 million died</a> over the course of three waves.</p><p>It was the combination of a quick return to normal life and a mutation in the flu's genome that made it more deadly that led to the horrific second and third waves.</p><p>Thankfully, the coronavirus appears to be much more <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.meegid.2020.104351" target="_blank">genetically stable</a> than the influenza virus, and thus less likely to mutate into a more deadly variant. That leaves human behavior as the main risk factor.</p><p>Until a <a href="https://theconversation.com/what-needs-to-go-right-to-get-a-coronavirus-vaccine-in-12-18-months-136816" target="_blank">vaccine or effective treatment is developed</a>, the tried-and-true public health measures of the last months – <a href="https://theconversation.com/this-simple-model-shows-the-importance-of-wearing-masks-and-social-distancing-140423" target="_blank">social distancing,</a> <a href="https://theconversation.com/masks-help-stop-the-spread-of-coronavirus-the-science-is-simple-and-im-one-of-100-experts-urging-governors-to-require-public-mask-wearing-138507" target="_blank">universal mask wearing</a>, frequent hand-washing and avoiding crowded indoor spaces – are the ways to stop the first wave and thwart a second one. And when there are surges like what is happening now in the U.S., further reopening plans need to be put on hold.</p>
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