By John Karoly
Chicago, IL, USA
We have devoted quite a bit of space in prior columns to energy-related subjects. The truth of the matter is that we can live, albeit not well, perhaps rather miserably, but live, with energy shortages. We cannot live without water. And while we consume less energy during an economic downturn, at times much less, our water consumption decreases only marginally with the slowdown of the economy. People, seven billion of them, still have to drink, grow food, even if in somewhat smaller quantities, bathe and wash, etc.
Since we started to discuss the subject of energy in prior columns much has happened. As matters stand, we are swimming in fossil fuels, natural gas and crude oil. The U.S. is the third largest energy producer, and even our crude oil production is increasing dramatically. Just last month a major refinery investment was announced, all predicated upon exporting distillates (gasoline) from the gulf. But don’t start buying Hummers. Gasoline prices go up like a rocket and come down like a feather, even in a recession. Our gasoline prices, however, are still low and the gasoline can be sold into the world market at higher prices. Some of our refineries became competitive with the abundant supply of natural gas, but they will not give away the gasoline below world market prices.
It is said that Energy=Water and vice versa. With a sufficient amount of energy, we can run seawater conversion plants to generate potable water; run pumping stations to pump water from place-to-place, etc. Now let us look at why these remedies will be needed worldwide, if they are affordable and if we have the infrastructure to get the water from where it is to where it is needed.
Water covers roughly 70% of the Earth’s surface. Of this, about 97% is seawater, about 2% is tied up in ice on the poles and Greenland, and about 1% is in subsurface ground water. Since the above adds up to one hundred percent, the obvious question is where is the fresh water that is in the Great Lakes, in Lake Baikal, in all the rivers, etc. The answer is that the above percentages were rounded to the nearest whole number. Without rounding, a fraction of each is left over, the sum of which is below one percent making up the total for sweet water. And we are polluting this small fraction of sweet water everywhere!
Water is what the chemists call a “universal solvent”. This means it can dissolve almost anything. This is one of the wonderful qualities of water, but it is also one of its detriments. This is why it is so easy to pollute water and conversely so expensive to purify it. The ease to pollute aspect is what concerns us the most. We require a huge quantity of pure water to feed the world population and provide it with water for all purposes mentioned above. We are woefully short of achieving this objective. And with climate change, drought is becoming the critical factor in a large part of this country and the world. To make matters worse, droughts are interrupted with floods from tropical storms and floods from hurricanes. Droughts lead to fires, which the Western U.S. is experiencing at increasing frequency, as droughts are more frequent and as the temperature rises due to climate change (global warming).
As an example, Texas has a severe drought that is forecast to last for the better part of this century. It is not a short-term problem. Similarly the droughts and fires in the Western U.S. are long term and they are forecast perhaps to last for the rest of this century, too. This represents a tremendous problem, with enormous fires dislocating people and wild life, interrupting the natural landscape, potentially converting dense forests into deserts. Colorado rain and snow fall was/is at an all-time low. Wildfires are raging and many more are going to break out in the dried out and diseased pine forests.
Asia also has tremendous problems with water. Many of China’s major cities don’t have access to pure water and most of their aquifers are polluted. Without water, in a drought condition, they cannot run their coal-fired plants. Thus, the equation Power=Water is correct in both directions. Without water, we have less power. This is also true for solar cells erected in sunny deserts. They require water to keep the solar collectors clean. Dirty/dusty solar cells collect very little energy. In the desert climate, you have plenty of sunshine, but no water.
With some exceptions, water is regarded all around the world as a basic right a human being should enjoy free of charge. It is difficult to put a price tag on water. Without a price, however, there is no budget for water, except what governments provide for water-related projects and for water purification. There is no incentive for conservation. There is no incentive for control of water purity. No one individual or nation can solve these problems.
And while there have been lots of discussions and many articles written, substantial research and other work carried out over many years on this subject by knowledgeable authors, researchers, engineers, the energy discussion still dwarfs the awareness of the water problem. We must turn up the volume to a high decibel, maybe higher than the energy issues. Unless we solve this problem, millions will suffer and die from water shortage. This is not an effort that can be pushed onto others. We all need to engage in an attempt to solve it. If potable water disappears, so will we.