Will The World Be Thirsty For Energy?

Via LinkedIn, commentary on the watergy nexus:

In an era when engineering has pushed the envelope of production possibilities, the challenge may no longer be to attain greater heights, but rather to promote the longevity and viability of limited resources, like water.  

Back in the days when economies were organic, production depended on land, labor and capital. The latter two were capable of indefinite expansion, but land was limited. Almost all basic necessities in an organic economy – supply of food and raw materials that entered into production – depended on a finite resource that was land. Hence, the early humans were faced with a conundrum: Expanding material production would mean obtaining greater volume of produce from land, but that, in turn, would lead to the cultivation of land of inferior quality or to the use of existing land more intensively. When this situation persists, returns to both capital and labor would diminish.

Classical economist, Adam Smith succinctly states the problem, spelling out its implications on the living standards of the population and on the return on capital (1789):

“In a country which had acquired that full complement of riches which the nature of its soil and climate, and its situation with respect to other countries, allowed it to acquire; which could, therefore, advance no further, and which was not going backwards, both the wages of labor and the profit of stock would probably be very low.”

David Ricardo, another classical economist, supported Adam Smith, and said that the resulting situation “will necessarily be rendered permanent by the laws of nature, which have limited the productive powers of the land”.

Have we overcome limitations?

Fast forward to today’s world…. 

The days of the organic economy have sailed, and the industrial revolution has powered production to a whole new level. Countries are now experiencing unprecedented growth patterns, and almost all sectors of the society and of the economy are dependent on electrical power to operate. Humanity has indeed made great strides to reach the era where it is now.  

But in this day and age of exceptional production capabilities, one truth has not changed, which still calls Smith and Ricardo to mind: Each country only has a limited amount of sources that it can acquire, and once obtained, the consumption will yield permanent effects by virtue of the laws of nature. This declaration may mean that the very process of growth as we know it implies that it cannot be sustained indefinitely. As growth depends on finite assets to persist, every increase in production will entail an equivalent escalation in consumption and destruction of resources. 

This hypothesis is no more evident than in these days. A recent study circulated by Aarhus University in Denmark predicts that if the current global power consumption pattern continues, there would not be enough water in the world to meet the demand by 2040. As water is used in different methods of power generation, increasing energy demand results in a proportional spike in the requirement for water. Therefore, experts are now suggesting that in order to curb the recession of the world’s water supply, current electricity generation procedures should evolve into approaches that do not need water to run. 

It seems, however, that humanity does not have the luxury of a 27-year deadline…. The same research adds that the effects of the continued rise in energy demand could be felt in some areas as early as in 2020. An estimated 30%-40% of the world will experience scarcity and lack of access to clean drinking water in 2020, and climate change is predicted to render its effects worse. 

The fact that the amount of the world’s water reserves is receding will not only put drinking water consumption in jeopardy but also the capability of power plants to produce electricity for generations to come.   

How to avert a power-water paradox

In order to mitigate the negative effects of power generation on the world’s water reserves, experts recommend turning to renewable sources of energy, like wind and solar. This makes perfect sense in the context of Smith and Ricardo’s scenario described above: Limitations will only exist if production is anchored on finite resources. Therefore, if one substitutes this factor with an infinite resource, restraints would cease to be, and growth could be sustained indefinitely. 

To date, there have been several countries in the world that have adopted initiatives to increase their renewable energy input in the coming decades. Germany, for instance, has set ambitious goals of boosting renewable energy to 35% of the country’s entire energy mix by 2020, and to 80% by 2050. Scandinavian countries have also established similar objectives. In the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates, for example, have recently inaugurated a large-scale solar power plant within the outskirts of Dubai, and has announced its subsequent extension in years to come. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has also been leading the research and development efforts in terms of renewable energy. 

That there are countries embracing the call for evolving energy generation processes has been documented, and more newly developed and, even, developing countries are following suit. One truth, however, cannot be taken out of the picture: Renewable energy systems, like wind and solar plants, are constantly developing and, at best, are experiencing a nascent upturn in terms of acceptance and technological innovation. As with any other systems, solar and wind farms still have room for improvement and may find benefits in the support of other equipment. Moreover, as renewable systems are powered by nature-driven energies, it may be challenging to predict their performance and have them deliver the same amount of continuous energy as traditional power plants. 

As renewable energy engineers perfect wind and solar technologies, temporary power plants could support these systems by providing supplementary power to the areas where they operate. For instance, when wind energy facilities experienceunstable production due to the unpredictability of wind, rental power plants may be able to assist in stabilizing the supply, so end-users may not experience power interruptions or blackouts. Rental power plants are equipped with technologies that can guarantee an immediate response at the outset of a supply instability from renewable facilities. Case-in point, interim energy facilities are infused with fast-start systems that allows them to supply power at the shortest time possible. They are also adaptable enough to ascertain the exact need of the users, and flexible enough to allow for ramp-ups or scale-down of energy supply depending on the situation. They also represent a cost- and time-efficient alternative to building permanent power plants for the purposes of supporting renewable energy systems. 

Onward to a greener future

In light of the grim repercussions that the present energy-water predicament may bring in the near future, the need to find suitable alternative sources of energy is heightened. But as one may predict, the perfection and the adoption of technologies cannot happen overnight nor in a span of few years. There are numerous factors involved in shifting a paradigm, and for a technology to gain traction, all variables involved should agree to head to the same direction. 

While experts are looking into the improvement of renewable energy generation facilities, these systems may find merit in tapping the support of other stable technologies, like rental generators. As the world transitions to alternative power generation processes, the need of the hour may not be to look for one method to dominate or overthrow another: What is essential to is find a balanced energy mix – traditional, renewable and temporary – where sources complement each other to create a system that will be capable of providing the most sustainable and stable electricity supply possible.

Human engineering has made it possible to work around limitations to production. Humans have found a way to transition from an economy largely dependent on muscle power and animal strength, to one run by steam and coal, to one anchored on petroleum, oil & gas and electrical energy. Now, in an era when engineering has pushed the envelope of production possibilities, the challenge may no longer be to attain greater heights, but rather to promote the longevity and viability of limited resources, like water.  

This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 21st, 2015 at 10:06 am and is filed under Uncategorized.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. 

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About This Blog And Its Author
As the scarcity of water and energy continues to grow, the linkage between these two critical resources will become more defined and even more acute in the months ahead.  This blog is committed to analyzing and referencing articles, reports, and interviews that can help unlock the nascent, complex and expanding linkages between water and energy -- The Watergy Nexus -- and will endeavor to provide a central clearinghouse for insightful articles and comments for all to consider.

Educated at Yale University (Bachelor of Arts - History) and Harvard (Master in Public Policy - International Development), Monty Simus has held a lifelong interest in environmental and conservation issues, primarily as they relate to freshwater scarcity, renewable energy, and national park policy.  Working from a water-scarce base in Las Vegas with his wife and son, he is the founder of Water Politics, an organization dedicated to the identification and analysis of geopolitical water issues arising from the world’s growing and vast water deficits, and is also a co-founder of SmartMarkets, an eco-preneurial venture that applies web 2.0 technology and online social networking innovations to motivate energy & water conservation.  He previously worked for an independent power producer in Central Asia; co-authored an article appearing in the Summer 2010 issue of the Tulane Environmental Law Journal, titled: “The Water Ethic: The Inexorable Birth Of A Certain Alienable Right”; and authored an article appearing in the inaugural issue of Johns Hopkins University's Global Water Magazine in July 2010 titled: “H2Own: The Water Ethic and an Equitable Market for the Exchange of Individual Water Efficiency Credits.”