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The Link Between Renewable Energy and Clean Water

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Emily Folk's picture
Journalist Conservation Folks

Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability journalist. She focuses primarily on green technology and the impact changes in technology have on climate change. On her blog, Conservation Folks...

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  • Jan 24, 2019 7:22 pm GMT
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Renewable energy has become a hot-button topic in recent years. Even the least eco-friendly consumer is considering installing solar panels or other green energy sources on their home or property, just because it reduces the cost of keeping a house powered. What many people, both as consumers and as industry experts, are overlooking is the link between renewable energy and ensuring that we have enough clean water to drink. How are these two conservation topics linked?

Traditional Energy and Waste

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Most of the power generated by electrical grids across the country is created by burning coal, oil, or natural gas. These fossil fuels are finite resources and create millions of metric tons of greenhouse gasses every year. They also utilize water to cool the facilities, which is often contaminated and then released back into the ecosystem at a much higher temperature.

Collecting natural gas also creates a potential for drinking water contamination. Fracking, the colloquial name for mining natural gas, is also called hydraulic fracturing. High-pressure water is forced into natural gas mines, fracturing the gas shale and releasing the fuel used to generate electricity. The water used during this procedure is contaminated and instead of being cleaned, is released back into the ecosystem. More than 200,000 people every year contract diseases by being exposed to or drinking this contaminated water.

Irrigation and Agriculture

In spite of the enormous population that the planet Earth currently supports, we only use up about 30 percent of the country's water supply. A whopping 70 percent of clean water around the globe is used to support agriculture. Clean water, or a lack thereof, is the most significant limiting factor when it comes to creating food security around the world. It's estimated that the water requirements of the global agriculture market will double by 2025, which makes having clean and drinkable water more important than ever.

The Link Between Green Energy and Clean Water

While the two things might not seem related, there is a direct link between maintaining clean water supplies and the use and implementation of green energy alternatives. Let's take a look at the most popular form of green energy — solar. Photovoltaic solar power requires a fraction of the water intake that is necessary for traditional thermal power. Burning natural gas or coal uses gallons of water to produce one kilowatt of energy. Solar panels only take a few cups of water to create the same amount of energy.

The agricultural industry has started to utilize green energy as a way to combat rising energy costs, but this switch is also helping to reduce the amount of water that is used to produce that energy.

It may even be possible to clean water using the power of the sun. Solar disinfection could be used to remove bacteria and other contaminants from water sources, rendering them drinkable and increasing the number amount of potable water available on the planet.

 

There is a direct link between renewable energy and clean water, one that we can no longer afford to overlook. 70 percent of the planet's surface may be covered by water, but only 3 percent of it is drinkable — and 2 of those percent are frozen in the planet's ice caps. We're working with less than 1 percent of the planet's water content, and it's essential that we take any necessary steps to keep our water supplies clean. Transitioning to green energy is one step toward creating a fully sustainable planet and reversing the damage that we've done over the last couple of centuries. This is the only planet that we have, so it is essential that we start taking care of it.

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Robert Hemphill's picture
Robert Hemphill on Jan 25, 2019

this is a nice article but has one big blunder in it.  PV panels do not require ANY water to make electricity.  Why Sunpower would say this is a mystery. I built a 250 MW PV plant in El Centro, Ca and we did not install the slightest water facilities at the plant.  

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Jan 27, 2019

It seems like they are presuming water for cleaning panels to maintain efficiency ... where it seems as if the answer if water is constrained is, "don't clean the panels using water".

 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jan 27, 2019

Another blunder in the article is to ignore our largest source of clean energy, nuclear, which also can be implemented without the consumption of large quantities of fresh water. 

Many existing plants and most of the nuclear plants getting built globally nowadays are coastal plants: those in China, UK, France, Finland, UAE, India, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan.  These use sea-water (not fresh water) for cooling.

When nuclear plants are built in desert climates, they often include de-salinization equipment to supply fresh water (which is re-used repeated) for steam and operations.  Large scale nuclear powered de-salinization to support municipal use is also possible (as a sustainable alternative to the fossil fuel powered desalinization which is common in Middle Eastern fossil fuel producing countries).

Wayne Lusvardi's picture
Wayne Lusvardi on Feb 8, 2019

Re: "A whopping 70 percent of clean water around the globe is used to support agriculture. Clean water, or a lack thereof, is the most significant limiting factor to creating food security around the world." - Emily Folk

I worked for the largest urban water agency in the US for 20 years and the above statement is misleading.  First of all agriculture uses raw, untreated water, as does the environment. Cities use treated potable water.  The adjective "clean water" is a misnomer.  

Secondly, even in California, one of the largest agricutural producers in the world, agriculture uses only about 40% of the raw captured system water (not all the rainfall) on average. This varies from a low of about 30% in a wet year to about 60% in a dry year. Put differently, the environment and cities uses about 60% of the water on average.

Moreover, when discussing water usage the word "agriculture" is often used as a pejorative (as in "corporate agriculture").  The word "food" for humans is hardly ever used.  So about 40% of system water in California is used for food (to prevent starvation). In a modern, technological society food production is industrial and corporate. Only non-techological societies rely on water as it is found in nature.  Only about 1% of the labor force is needed to produce food in technological societies while in other societies daily life is a constant struggle for food and survival.  Modern society could not exist without potable water (water treated with chemicals or processed with chemicals - chlorine, chloramines, carbon, copper, etc.).  Otherwise there would be massive cholera and other diseases. 

Also, as other commenters have noted, the author does not distinguish between concentrated solar farms and distributed rooftop solar systems.  The former must use water to produce steam to drive a turbine to generate electricity; the later does not. 

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