How do we meet the world’s future energy demands? Not an easy question, but it gets even more complicated when you factor in another critical need: water.
While water hasn’t always been factored into energy discussions — or vice versa — the two are “inextricably linked,” according to Sandia National Laboratories. That’s why researchers there are working to develop an advanced modeling tool that will help people better understand their energy and water needs in one neat, if complex, package.
It makes lots of sense, once you think about it. Purifying water for drinking, pumping water into homes and fields, and reclaiming water for reuse all require energy. And generating energy takes lots of water, whether indirectly by coal-burning power plants or nuclear reactors or directly by hydropower. According to Sandia Labs, the U.S. uses about 140 billion gallons of water per day to generate its electricity. Even though most of that water can be immediately reused, as opposed to the water used in agriculture, that still amounts to more than 40 percent of all the fresh water used by the nation every day.
As energy demands continue to rise, water shortages around the globe expand and climate change aggravates both, the complicated interplay between energy and water will become more important than ever for us to understand.
Take, for example, the rush to build desalination plants to turn salt water into drinking water as existing fresh water sources dry up. Desalination is energy-intensive; in fact, one study estimated that it takes 10,000 tons of oil a year to put out 1,000 cubic meters of desalinated water per day. Multiply that by the 13,080 desalination plants currently operating around the world, and the energy costs are clear.
Sandia researchers hope their new interactive energy-water model will give decision-makers across the board access to better information on how to plan for the future. The system, now in its second year of development, will eventually help answer questions about regional shortfalls, the tradeoffs involved for different energy and water sources, environmental and economic costs, and potential consequences. It’s a tall order, but one well worth trying to achieve.
“The challenge will be to have enough data to tell a story,” said Peter Kobos, a Sandia researcher handling energy modeling. “We think we do. If not, we’ll identify gaps and address them as the project progresses.”