Texas professor discusses relationship between water and energy

Spring 2012 –

Dr. Michael Webber, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Associate Director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas at Austin, discussed the importance of the relationships between energy and water Jan. 9 in Pearson Hall.

Dr. Webber explained that energy and water are interrelated, with the relationship between them already strained, and trends show that these strains will increase, but that policy solutions already exist.

Water and energy are the two looming crises of the 21st century, according to Dr. Webber. “We use energy for water,” he said. “And water for energy.”

This relationship of using energy to purify and transport water and using water to create energy is under strain because of the rapid growth in population and economics. Webber also explained that there is no shortage of water, just problems with accessibility.

“We have plenty of water. There is no scarcity,” said Webber. “We just spend excessive amounts of energy and money because it is in inconvenient locations and forms. If water the water is available in the wrong place, we spend energy to get it in the right place. If the water is available in the wrong form, we spend energy to get it in the right form.”

Dr. Webber made the argument that control and access to water is related to economic, governmental, and military power by demonstrating how sustained droughts are connected with problems in civilization.

“The Mayans went from a population of one million to a population of 300,000 in the span of a generation or two because of a lack of access to water,” said Dr. Webber.

Dr. Webber also cited the quest for water  creates political tensions like those between Georgia and Tennessee. After an extended period of drought in Georgia, the General Assembly propositioned the United States Supreme Court to re-draw the border line between the two states, a proposition that would give Georgia access to a portion of the Tennessee River.

The thermoelectric power sector is the largest water user in the United States, according to Dr. Webber. More than 75% of power in the United States is operated on a steam cycle and more than 12% of the energy consumed in the United States is for water.

“As we get richer as a society, there are stricter water and wastewater treatment standards,” Dr. Webber said. “This is a good thing, but it takes more energy.”

Dr. Webber proposes actions such as dry cooling at power plants, energy recovery at wastewater treatment plants, and giving consumers more access to information on their water options and how they affect the environment.

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