Sense, Predict, Act

Energy-Water Nexus Risk Management

The Challenge:

With the world’s population passing seven billion people recently, resource scarcity has become the ‘new normal’ for the 21st century. Managing the complex inter-relationships (the ‘nexus’) between energy, water, air quality, land, food and climate is critical to optimize economic growth, make energy accessible, and ensure environmental sustainability. There is a fundamental relationship between freshwater and energy. Coal, gas and nuclear power plants use large quantities of water for cooling. Some forms of renewable generation also use large quantities of water, such as evaporation in hydro reservoirs, irrigation of ethanol-producing crops, and steam in solar thermal. On the other hand, pumping equipment for water treatment and distribution (from cities to irrigation) depends on reliable, low-cost energy. Water shortages impact energy supply. Droughts have caused temporary closure of nuclear plants in Australia, France, Germany, Romania and Spain. Severe drought forced hydropower-dependent Brazil to ration power to prevent extensive blackouts and cut industrial usage by 15% to 25%, at great economic cost. Water shortages constrain new power plant siting and approvals. In California, the Solar Millennium company was forced to abandon wet cooling for a proposed solar plant after the water district refused to supply the 815 million gallons of water a year the project needed. Most observers can sense that resource constraint issues are imminent, but only rudimentary insights exist into when and where problems are likely to occur and under what circumstances. Many analytic approaches to resource planning exist, but most are economically-focused, static, and span broad regional or national levels. They lack the detailed geospatial and temporal resolution needed to perform dynamic risk modeling. This lack of resolution is troublesome for planning resources that are local in nature, such as water, land and wind/solar/geothermal availability. Yet, this is precisely what is needed to make across-the-board resource allocation decisions that minimize the overall risk profile.

The Opportunity:

Assessing the opportunities and risks of the energy-water nexus requires a more comprehensive approach to resource planning. It requires integration of better sensing and analytic modeling; to span multiple disciplines across space and time (e.g. weather, hydrology, land-use, energy and climate systems); optimize tradeoffs between economic, risk and environment goals; and to characterize information using risk distributions and mitigation measures. Planetary Skin Institute is working to address these capabilities. Our planned energy-water nexus risk management platform will be a development test bed for new capabilities and technologies to improve resource planning and management. We are exploring innovations, including real-time data feeds from distributed river gauge sensors; machine learning to improve hydrological models; and approaches to continuously update water and energy risk assessments as new socioeconomic and biophysical data are identified. Unlike a traditional static study that captures a situation at a single point in time, our platform would enable dynamic and continuously updated assessment of water and energy risk The PSI platform would help stakeholders answer important questions, such as:
  • What areas of a country have the highest/lowest risk of water shortage for energy production?
  • How much water is available for existing or planned power generation plants by geography?
  • What are the risk probabilities/impacts of energy-on-water and water-on-energy for specific geography?
  • What is the best tradeoff between energy-water usage that maximizes overall societal value?
  • What scenarios and interventions most reduce the risks on planned energy infrastructure?
This platform would be useful for several stakeholders, including: Energy and water planners to fine tune resource risk management policies, Banks and investors to assess existing and planned infrastructure projects, and Energy & Water suppliers to make best use of their available resources.