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Energy-Water Nexus Gets $100 Million Love Tap From US DOE

2019.01.04     From: cleantechnica

File this one under W for What a coincidence! Seven southwestern US states are facing a drop-dead deadline for figuring out a new way to divvy up the dwindling waters of the Colorado River, and meanwhile the US Department of Energy has just announced a new $100 million round of funding for new cutting edge desalination systems and other new technologies that could help stretch water resources throughout the region and the rest of the nation.

Heh. Well, of course when the topic turns to the US southwest, water resources, and desalination you know that fracking is involved in there somewhere, so let’s take a deeper dive and see what’s going on.

The Colorado River Is Dyingggg

Agriculture and population growth are usually fingered as the main unsustainable drains on the Colorado River, but in recent years oil and gas drillers have given farmers and populations a run for the money.

Fracking is short for hydrofracturing, an oil and gas drilling method that involves ramming copious amounts of water into shale formations.

Last year the Trump administration also proposed giving the oil and gas industry an even bigger slice of the water pie (I know, right? Shocker!).

Another factor is climate change, which has been implicated in the triple whammy of periods of drought, less runoff from snowfall, and warmer temperatures that speed evaporation.

Farmers Facing Water Deadline

Fracking or not, earlier this week federal water officials announced that they would impose mandatory restrictions on Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, unless all seven states sign off on a voluntary plan to conserve the Colorado River.

How important is the Colorado River? Our friends over at Grist run the numbers (break added):

The Colorado River provides water to 1-in-8 Americans, and irrigates 15 percent of the country’s agricultural products. The nearly 40 million people who depend on it live in cities from Los Angeles to Denver. The river supports native nations and industry across the vast desert Southwest — including 90 percent of U.S.-grown winter vegetables.

Simply put: The region could not exist in its current form without it.


The good news is, all seven states are close to reaching an agreement.

The bad news is, part of the strategy involves pumping more groundwater to irrigate farmland. That’s not a particularly sustainable solution over the long term (in water lingo, rivers are surface water because they are fed by runoff; wells and aquifers are groundwater because, well, ground).

The interesting news is, the whole deal isn’t final yet because a group of farmers in Arizona’s Pinal County is holding out for federal assistance.

For a deep dive on the Pinal County dustup, check out the latest news straight from the horse’s mouth, aka Tuscon.com. You won’t regret it!

US Department Of Energy To The Rescue!

CleanTechnica reached out to the Pinal farmer group for some additional insights into their position. A representative of the group, Paul R. Orme, provided this overview:

We generally support the Ag Mitigation proposal but our concerns are related to the need for some statutory and regulatory changes needed to have access to the mitigation water. Additionally, there has not been an identified certain funding source for the Groundwater Infrastructure piece. We are working on all these issues and I’m generally optimistic.

In the meantime, the US Department of Energy is looking at broader, long term solutions that involve deploying clean tech to re-use water that’s otherwise useless.

They don’t say so, but that sure seems to include fracking wastewater. The press release announcing the new round of funding sums it all up in the lede (break added):

Today, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced $100 million to establish an Energy-Water Desalination Hub (Hub) to address water security issues in the United States.

The Hub will focus on early-stage research and development (R&D) for energy-efficient and cost-competitive desalination technologies including manufacturing challenges, and for treating non-traditional water sources for multiple end-use applications.

Hmmm, where does it say fracking?

Where does it say fracking?

The Hub builds on something called the Water Security Grand Challenge, which the Energy Department launched earlier this year. The Challenge lays out the key goals for 2030:

Launch desalination technologies that deliver cost-competitive clean water

Transform the energy sector’s produced water from a waste to a resource

Achieve near-zero water impact for new thermoelectric power plants, and significantly lower freshwater use intensity within the existing fleet

Double resource recovery from municipal wastewater

Develop small, modular energy-water systems for urban, rural, tribal, national security, and disaster response settings.

So, where is the fracking? Let’s go back to the press release for the Hub:

The Hub will focus on desalination R&D to provide low-cost alternatives that treat “non-traditional” water sources such as seawater, brackish water, and produced waters…

There’s that thing about produced waters again. Produced water refers to water held in shale formations, which comes up to the surface when fracking fluid is pumped in. The result is massive amounts of nasty fracking wastewater. Depending on the operation, some of this stuff is recycled and some is trucked to a local water treatment plant, but a lot of it is simply pumped into derelict wells (see: earthquakes, Oklahoma).

The Water-Energy Nexus

Long story short, improvements and cost efficiencies in the treatment of produced water will help sustain the US oil and gas industry, so there’s that. Come to think of it, the Challenge aims at exporting US technology, so the impact would be global unless the US and everybody else gets more serious about climate action.

Oh, well. On the bright side, the Hub could come up with some technological breakthroughs with broad benefits.

The key to the challenge is the energy-water nexus. It takes water to produce energy (nuclear and biomass as well as oil and gas), but then it takes energy to treat the wastewater from energy production.

The energy-water nexus is a tough nut to crack, though there are already some solutions. For example, municipal wastewater already has shown potential for biogas recovery and hydrogen production.

The problem is that energy intensity (and therefore costs) rise when the salinity of the water to be treated goes up. The Energy Department ran the numbers:

…the average energy intensity to purify seawater and brackish waters to pipe parity drinking water is approximately 3.2 kilowatt hour per cubic meter (kWh per m3), (ranging between 1.6 and 4.8 kWh per m3), and costs an average $1.50 per m3.4 In comparison, pipe parity drinking water production from fresh water has an average energy intensity of 0.29 kWh per m3 and costs on average $0.50 per m3 to extract, convey and treat.

Got all that? Produced water opens up a whole ‘nother can of worms:

Even more complex is the desalination of produced water, where salinity can reach as high as 30% and may contain as high as 180,000 ppm of TDS. At these TDS levels, thermal technologies may be most effective, despite significantly higher desalination energy intensities (than for seawater/brackish waters).


Anyways, the new $100 million announcement is just the beginning of an organizational process for the Hub. Once the key players are on board the next step is to produce a roadmap, so stay tuned for more on that.

In the meantime, the Energy Department’s request for applications drops a hint. The idea is that reverse osmosis technology is not a viable solution for produced water. The alternative involves thermal energy. That’s a non-starter if the energy is produced from conventional sources, but throw solar power into the mix — especially concentrated solar power — and you might have something there.

Come to think of it, last summer the agency put up $21 million for a whole solar desalination program.

Along with agriculture, municipal and industrial wastewater treatment, the solar initiative is looking at applications in the oil and gas extraction market.

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