Webber discusses the fundamental connection between water and energy

Credit: Zichen Liu/Photo Editor Credit: Zichen Liu/Photo Editor Credit: Zichen Liu/Photo Editor Credit: Zichen Liu/Photo Editor

On Feb. 16, Carnegie Mellon’s Scott Institute for Energy Innovation hosted an event titled “Building a Resilient, Smart, and Sustainable City: The Energy and Water Nexus.”

The first part of the event consisted of a keynote lecture by Dr. Michael Webber, the Josey Centennial Fellow in Energy Resources, an Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s mechanical engineering department, and the Deputy Director of Energy Institute. Webber, a Stanford graduate, has written two books about the subject of energy and policy and over a hundred other articles in both research journals and in popular media outlets such as The New York Times and Scientific American.

The lecture was based off a book Webber had written, called Thirst for Power: Energy, Water, and Human Survival. The overarching theme was the fundamental and intricate connections between water and energy, as water is necessary for life and energy is necessary if people want to do more than just survive. Pittsburgh, like many other cities, is defined by water, as exemplified by three rivers surrounding the area. Webber gave historical examples that showed the correlation between a sustained lack of water and the collapse of civilizations — from several Chinese dynasties (Tang, Yuan, and Ming), to the Roman Empire, to the Mayan Empire. Water is so important that it is all over our cultural lexicon. For example, “glass half full” means optimist, and in Greek mythology, Tantalus is punished for leaking the secrets of the gods by being made to stand in an ever-receding pool of water.

Meanwhile, energy is essential not just for cleaning water (a basic human need) but also for mobility, productive industry, comfortable shelter, and abundant food.Energy is essential to a high quality of life. This point is illustrated in the time-lapse videos from the International Space Station which shows North Korea in darkness except for a small speck of light at Pyongyang, because most of the people there live without power and in poverty. As an example of the connection between water and energy, he discussed the situation many women and girls in developing countries face: missing school or work to carry water from miles away and then boiling it using primitive, unsafe cookstoves. Statistics show that a disproportionate number of women and girls die prematurely because of this every year. Additionally, while our bodies require freshwater, much of Earth’s water is either saltwater or locked in ice caps, both of which require energy to turn them into freshwater. Simply heating water is responsible for over 12 percent of nationwide energy usage.

“The last time I checked, boiled water is not a new technology,” Webber said half-jokingly, illustrating the fundamental nature of the connection between water and energy.

He went on to illustrate how this connection demonstrates both opportunity and vulnerability. The vulnerability arises in areas ranging from energy production-related pollution contaminating water sources — oil spills, for example — to the increased seismic activity induced by the injection of wastewater in fracking to the displacement and costs associated with hydroelectric dams and even the deaths that can result should a dam collapse. In 2003, a heat wave in Europe heated up the water so much that nuclear power plants could not use the water for their cooling systems without risking the violation of thermal pollution limits. On the other end of the temperature spectrum, frozen water can threaten the power sector by damaging everything from hydroelectric power plants to delaying the start of the shipping season. In 2014, the polar vortex froze rivers and lakes, preventing road salt from being delivered and thus driving up the price of fuel because fuel trucks couldn’t make it through the snow and ice. Floods and droughts can damage the power sector as well, since both can leave people without power for extended periods of time.

Webber said that water will become the most precious resource as we head deeper into the 21st century. There have already been many Hollywood movies made about the possibility of water wars. In the real world, the Syrian civil war is worsened by the ensuing water crisis there, and India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers, are at risk of breaking into a conflict over water resources.

On the other hand, the connection between energy and water presents an opportunity. Currently around 10 to 40 percent of water is wasted, while over half of all electricity produced is lost as heat. Webber made a case for smart meters that can save and stabilize energy and water consumption, depending on time of day and indoor use versus outdoor use, among other functions. He concluded by calling for better STEM education to improve water and energy literacy and discussing the benefits of conservation.

Webber’s keynote lecture was followed by a panel consisting of Rich Fitzgerald, the Allegheny County Executive; William Peduto, the mayor of Pittsburgh; Philip Mezey, the CEO of Itron; Richard Riazzi, the CEO of Duquesne Light Company; Morgan O’Brien, CEO of Peoples Natural Gas; and Rick Stafford of Carnegie Mellon and the founder of Metro21 and MetroLab. The panel was hosted by Dr. Jared Cohon. A short question-and-answer session followed the panel.

The panel started off with Cohon praising Mayor Peduto and Fitzgerald for understanding the energy-related issues of this current century. The mayor discussed the need for new economic models due to the disruptions in the modern economy that will be created by forces such as automation. He emphasized that the definition of sustainability goes beyond just environmental protections and preservation; it also encompasses economic equality and affordability. Fitzgerald added that we should learn from the misuses of water and other resources in the past and apply them to the present to create a more sustainable economy. The discussion also revolved around themes such as increased efficiency leading to economic growth, research development initiatives, the importance of partnerships, and integrating all these issues to increase the quality of life for more people.

In the question session, Fitzgerald was asked about what university students can do to be involved in the issues surrounding the nexus of water and energy. He emphasized the need for new business models. “There’s as much honor in innovating new business models as inventing some brand new widget,” he said.

Webber concurs with the idea of integrating different areas necessary for tackling future challenges. In an interview with The Tartan, he concluded that “[He] would like to see more integrated thinking and more integrated design, where we realize our energy systems mean water and water systems mean energy, and we design them to be more resilient and less vulnerable.”