Local Water Issues

Toxic Water: Across Much of China, Huge Harvests Irrigated with Industrial and Agricultural Runoff

Author: Nadya IvanovaNadya Ivanova, a Bulgaria native, is a Chicago-based reporter for Circle of Blue. She co-writes The Stream, a daily digest of international water news trends. Interests: Europe, China, Environmental Policy, International Security.

FRIDAY, 18 JANUARY 2013 15:03

The dirty truth about the world’s largest grain producer.
water pollution contamination trash garbage Yellow River Lanzhou China

Photo © Aaron Jaffe / Circle of Blue

Polluted water and trash mingle on the bank of the Yellow River in Lanzhou, China. Click image to enlarge slideshow.
JINAN, Shandong — The horizon gleams with a golden hue from the wheat fields that spread in all directions here in Shandong, a prime food-growing province on the lower reaches of the Yellow River. As hundreds of farmers spread the wheat like massive carpets to dry on country roads, combine machines are busy harvesting the grain. The same afternoon that the wheat harvest is finished, farmers will already be planting corn and other crops. This is how China feeds 1.4 billion citizens and millions of livestock.
“There’s no water source except for this dirty water. We have to use it.” – Farmer in Shandong Province
The seeds of the economic miracle that have lifted China to the world’s second-largest economy are in the farm fields and tumbledown villages that each year grow the nearly 600 million metric tons of food that sustain public trust in the country’s dramatic transition.
Yet the ample harvest also comes with significant public health risks, as a farmer here explains.
Damp with sweat, dust, and chaff, he pulls a plastic hose into a water pump that is powered by a truck with a belt-drive. The moment the engines roar, the ingenious makeshift machine fills the hose with turbid water from the nearby canal where a pharmaceutical factory has just dumped its rancid effluent.
“There’s no water source except for this dirty water,” the farmer says. “We have to use it.”
Shigong, a 50-year-old farmer from the village of Tizi, has spent his lifetime tilling the craggy desert hills that for centuries have been the only lifeline in dry Gansu Province. In this remote area of western China, the farmer’s life is guided by the whims of the seasons, the flow of the nearby Yellow River, and the fruits of the land.
The rice paddies that feed Shigong’s home are giving an unmistakable sign of change. Salt and alkaline from a nearby chemical factory, as well as fertilizer overuse, have tainted the land and cut productivity.
Rice is now the only crop that survives here in Tizi, and even that is struggling: one mu (roughly 0.07 hectares, 0.17 acres) produces about half a metric ton of rice annually, which is only half of what the land yielded less than a decade ago.
“Water pollution affects our production very badly,” he says, looking at the nearby hills covered with salt. “The salt and alkaline are moving to the land. In two to three years, all the land will be wasted.”
Shigong’s plight is shared by other local farmers whose lands and lives are roiled by water shortages and pollution. In this arid corner of northwestern China – where rainfall measures in mere millimeters – small plots of maize and wheat squeeze between barren hills that are as dry as desert slopes. Rice paddies dot the banks of the Yellow River and its tributaries. Seen from above, the farms look like little oases surrounded by a barren wasteland.
But the landscape is steadily changing.
Since 2000, when China launched the “Go West” program to encourage industrial development and job growth in 11 of its western provinces and autonomous regions, Gansu’s industries and income levels have been rising. The development has turned Gansu and its neighboring provinces from primarily agricultural societies to ones that are putting more attention on developing heavy industry.
In an attempt to expand coal production westward, for example, China plans to open 15 large coal bases by 2015, mostly in Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Shaanxi, and Shanxi.
Despite better regulation, experts worry that, as China’s development moves west, it will transfer its pollution as well.
“Pollution is getting worse and worse here. Many heavy metal companies and plants have moved to Gansu from the east, “ Su Yongzhong, an expert at the Gansu Academy of Agricultural Sciences, told Circle of Blue. “These factories are producing dirty products. The trend is already there. We can see it happening.”
When the water turned black last month, he adds, most of the crop died after being irrigated with it — and what did not wither was sent to the market.
The farmer’s plight underlies a dirty truth about China’s fast development: the nation’s rivers, lakes, and falling water tables are enduring deficits of clean water that often force farmers to grow food using water that is tainted with heavy metals, organic pollutants, and nitrogen. Much of China’s water is so contaminated that it should not even be touched, yet tremendous amounts of the grains, vegetables, and fruits that are served in homes and restaurants, as well as textiles that are sold in markets, are irrigated with untreated industrial wastewater.
Contaminated Food
Crash programs to build highways, railways, airports, modern manufacturing bases, and other equipment have distinguished China for a generation. The country has not, however, launched any similarly comprehensive or sustained programs to clean up its filthy water, though reforms may be on the horizon.
Water and soil pollution in China are so prevalent that the nation’s farm productivity, its economy, and the people’s health are at risk as modernization, urbanization, and food demand are steadily increasing.
Furthermore, China’s Ministry of Land and Resources estimates that heavy metal pollution destroys 10 million metric tons of grain and contaminates another 12 million metric tons annually, incurring billions of dollars in direct economic losses each year as China struggles to satisfy the evermore-sophisticated diets of its growing population. With more and more Chinese moving into the middle and upper classes each year, so increases their ability to afford meat products like beef and pork, which are extremely water intensive as they must be fed substantial amounts of grains.
Meanwhile, as much as 10 percent of China’s rice, the country’s staple food, may be tainted by poisonous cadmium, a heavy metal that is discharged in mining and industrial sewage, according to scientists at Nanjing Agricultural University.
Food safety is a deep concern among Chinese citizens, a matter of national significance as old as the country itself. After years of high-profile scares — deadly melamine milk, recycled “gutter oil,” fake beef, and exploding watermelons, among others — food safety scandals are producing public ridicule and ire in a political system that has vowed to serve the people. As the public has called for the country to dramatically strengthen its environmental safeguards, authorities have begun setting nationally significant standards for water, soil, and food to curb the grimy side effects of sizzling economic growth.
“Crop security is the number one problem in the nation,” Fan Mingyuan, an expert at the Water Resources Research Institute of Shandong Province, told Circle of Blue. “It’s a national security problem.”
Agriculture is a vital industry in China, employing more than 300 million farmers and feeding a rapidly growing nation, still haunted by memories of severe famine and poverty during the 1950s and ’60s. And as China ranks among the global firsts in output of rice, wheat, potatoes, tea, cotton, meat, and other crops, the security of its food supplies could have significant global implications as well.
Soil and Water Pollution
While years of food scandals have focused public attention on factories and markets, few have looked at the source of the food chain — soil and water.
For instance, one-fifth of the Yellow River, northern China’s lifeline, should not be used for drinking, energy production, or irrigation; about 40 percent of the Hai River, which supports major food-producing areas in the northeast, is considered unusable. In fact, nearly 15 percent of China’s major rivers are not fit for any use, and more than half of the groundwater nationwide is categorized as “polluted” or “extremely polluted,” according to government statistics.
China Yellow River drinking water pollution contamination purification Liang Jia Wang groundwater

Photo © Aaron Jaffe / Circle of Blue

The Yellow River flows around a water-intake pipe to a purification building that has fallen into disrepair, forcing the residents of Liang Jia Wang, one of China’s many “cancer villages,” to drink water straight from the dirty river. Nearly 15 percent of China’s major rivers are not fit for any use, and more than half of the groundwater is labeled “polluted” or “extremely polluted.” Click image to enlarge slideshow.
Pollution is such a major driver of water scarcity in China that experts have given it a special term, shui zhi xing que shui, or literally “water-quality-driven water shortage.”
Moreover, China’s pollution hotspots are occurring in the places where economic growth is the highest and water resources are under the most stress — China’s dry northern breadbaskets and its biggest manufacturing hubs in the south and east.
“Farmers won’t eat what they produce… It’s not just about water safety; it’s about food safety as well.”  – Hu Kanping Chinese Ecological Civilization Research Promotion Association
Nearly 10 million of China’s 120 million hectares (25 million of 295 million acres) of cultivated land have been polluted, and more than 133,000 hectares (330,000 acres) have been infiltrated or destroyed by solid wastes, according to official statistics. Furthermore, half the soil in southern manufacturing cities is reportedly contaminated with cadmium, arsenic, mercury, petroleum, and organic matter.
“I have seen farmers in Hebei use contaminated water, because there’s nothing else to use. Farmers won’t eat what they produce. They have fields for themselves and fields for the market,” said Hu Kanping of the non-profit Chinese Ecological Civilization Research and Promotion Association, based in Beijing. “This is a very serious problem, not just for farmers but also for everyone else. It’s not just about water safety; it’s about food safety as well.”
Non-point Source Pollution
Spills and other pollution incidents from industrial and sewage treatment plants in recent years have drawn attention to some of China’s dirtiest rivers and lakes. Protests calling for dramatically strengthened environmental safeguards in China are now occurring with more frequency, signaling an awakening of both the public and government’s conscience about the environment.
But few realize that more than half of China’s water pollution comes from agriculture itself: fertilizers, pesticides, and livestock waste that are carried into lakes, rivers, wetlands, coastal waters, and underground aquifers by rainfall and snowmelt.
fertilizer agricultural runoff water contamination algae irrigation canal liaoning china

Photo © Adam Dean for Circle of Blue

High nutrient levels from fertilizer runoff produce mats of thick algae in a main-stem irrigation canal in Liaoning Province.Click image to enlarge slideshow.
This runoff is called agricultural non-point source pollution, because it cannot be traced back to one source, like pollution from a factory can be. Agricultural non-point source pollution is the dominant source of water pollution in China, and it also serves to increase soil erosion and reduce the productivity of the land. This kind of pollution has proved difficult to control globally, and most technical measures in China are focused on prevention rather than treatment.
While young people around the world are saving up to buy the latest laptops and tablets, recent college graduates Tang He and Dai Xiaoyan are taking on heavy metal pollution in their native Hunan Province. Zinc and indium factories – for new display technologies and other uses – are among the biggest sources of pollution in the Xiang River and have tainted miles of farmland throughout the province.
But Tang He and Dai Xiaoyan, who make up almost the entire staff of the toddling environmental NGO Green Hunan, are pushing the boundaries of open information about water pollution in Hunan’s government.
“When we started this kind of work several years ago, the local environmental protection bureaus were quite surprised that there were people monitoring their work,” Tang He told Circle of Blue. “Many of them didn’t even know that they had to make the pollution data public.”
In a country notorious for its weak local enforcement of pollution control regulations, Green Hunan innovates at the grassroots level by using water samples, fresh data, and existing laws to pressure local governments into releasing water pollution information. They have also built a volunteer network of active citizens, scientists, universities, policymakers, and environmental lawyers to monitor and publicize information about pollution in the Xiang River and its tributaries.
Activism about the environment is growing in China, as its fledgling green movement is taking root in some of the most remote regions of the country. For example, Green Hunan – advised by Liu Shuai, a progressive official at the Hunan People’s Congress Committee who promotes public and media monitoring of local governments – is currently collaborating with scores of other environmental organizations throughout China on a tool to rank Chinese municipal governments and some companies based on how compliant they are in releasing environmental information.
In China, where guanxi – the art of connections and relationships – makes everything easier, environmental NGOs are also learning to build trust with local authorities.
“We avoid being an opponent of the government. Instead, we make an objective assessment and recommendations on their performance, based on real data that we collect,” Tang He said.
Among China’s influential environmentalists is Ma Jun, a 44-year-old former journalist. Now Ma is the head of the Institute of Public and Environment Affairs, which compiled China’s first open-source online database of water and air pollution records and in 2012 prompted multinational giants like Apple to confront the pollution problems created by their Chinese suppliers.
“Environmental NGOs are the oldest NGOs in China. In the beginning, they were very idealistic and passionate; they thought that they could achieve a lot with only very limited knowledge,” Tang He said. “Before, when we talked about non-governmental organizations, people thought that they are anti-government. Now people have a better understanding of what NGOs are and the change that they can make.”
Meanwhile, in Xiangtan, a small city that is an hour-long drive from Changsha, Hunan’s provincial capital, the local environmental protection bureau has created an NGO to monitor metal smelters in a nearby factory district
“We have a very interesting agreement with the city government,” said Mao Jianwei, a Xiangtan volunteer. “If we find water pollution within the city, we will tell the local authorities about it under the table, and they will deal with it internally, without informing the provincial authorities. But if we find a problem outside the city, we will inform the provincial bureau. This helps the local authorities save face and deal with the issue themselves.”
The cruel irony is that China has become the largest producer and consumer of fertilizers and pesticides in the world, according to China’sJournal of Arid Land. Likewise, giant pig and poultry farms have also developed rapidly to satisfy the nation’s growing demand for meat: in 2002, the total livestock waste was more than four times greater than the production of industrial organic pollutants.
In fact, animals produce about 90 percent of the organic pollutants and about half of the nitrogen in China’s water, according to Wang Dong, a senior expert at the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning.
“China is developing too rapidly,” Wang told Circle of Blue. “It took Western countries 100 and more years to develop to this level — it took China 30 years. Our population is too big, and certain problems cannot be avoided when you have such big population.”
Effects on the Economy
Just how much damage China’s soil and water pollution has brought to people’s health, the land’s productivity, and the state’s economy is not completely clear, say authorities both inside and outside the country.
China’s attempt to introduce a “green GDP” in 2004 put the cost of the environment at about 3 percent of economic growth. According to the World Bank, the costs of environmental degradation and resource depletion in China approached 10 percent of GDP over the past decade — of which water pollution accounted for 2.1 percent and soil degradation for 1.1 percent — though this estimate only measured the impact on human health.
Central government authorities have acknowledged industry, agriculture, and cities as sources of pollution and have given a much bigger role to environmental regulations in China’s development plan through 2015. Recent reforms have introduced stricter targets for reducing major pollutants, and with promising results.
The central and provincial governments have invested more in cleaning up rivers and lakes and in reusing recycled water in homes, industries, and even on farm fields. They are also using award payments to persuade local authorities and businesses to take action on environmental programs and other initiatives, such as subsidizing biogas equipment in pig farms and spreading the residual on fields as a more natural alternative to synthetic fertilizers.
Eastern Chinese cities are also clamping down on where businesses can build pig farms, manufacturing factories, and power plants, in hopes of keeping nearby water bodies clean.
Meanwhile, foreign companies are rushing to cash in on cleaning up China’s pollution, as the Chinese government plans to invest $US 63 billion in the water-treatment sector during the current 12th Five-Year Plan period (2011-2015). Though investment in urban wastewater treatment is becoming more common, there is also increasing interest from the private sector in investing in solutions to rural pollution.
As a sign of new attitudes to food, fledgling companies offer to provide an organic certification, printing up organic or “green” food labels — for a fee. Even though agriculture officials promote organic, “green” food, and “no-harm” programs to reduce the use of harmful chemicals in food, there are still many reports of cheating and violations.
Economy & Environment At Odds
Because citizens are calling more attention to the links between pollution and deteriorating public health, independent authorities note that the increased activity is elevating the environment — and water issues in particular — to a much higher political priority in China.
cancer village china water pollution contamination yellow river Liang Jia Wang hospitalization life expectancy

Photo © Aaron Jaffe / Circle of Blue

With no access to water aside from that of the contaminated Yellow River, residents of Liang Jia Wang, one of China’s many “cancer villages,” have noted the alarmingly high cancer rates in the area. The local government posts weekly updates about the hospitalized residents in the village, where the average life expectancy is around 40 to 45 years. Click image to enlarge slideshow.
But controlling agricultural pollution will prove difficult, given that China has such an eclectic mix of farmscapes — from rural households to collective units to those that are state-owned, —since the country’s economic opening in 1978 when many farmers divided up their farmland. Not to mention that, in a country notorious for its weak local enforcement of environmental regulations, central efforts are often at odds with the economic interests of local businesses, governments, and farms.
“It took Western countries 100 and more years to develop to this level — it took China 30 years.”  –Wang Dong, senior expert Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning
China’s overwhelming local protectionism of polluting industries unveils a tight alliance between officials and local industries, often triggered by the pressure on local authorities to show progress in developing the economy. In the years of state-run market economics, local governments prioritize industrial growth, often at the expense of environmental regulation.
As environmental problems persist, social frustration builds up over the lack of effective alternative channels for complaint, the weak local enforcement of environmental laws, and the lack of accountability by the private sector. Many local protests against pollution incidents have thus focused on the strong state-corporate ties that hamper real reforms on the ground.
“All the environmental problems in China are political problems,” Hu Kanping told Circle of Blue. “And water pollution is more difficult to address than air pollution. In many areas, there’s resistance from farmers and local governments to address this problem, because it will affect their irrigation; it will raise their water fees and slow local GDP growth.”
Photos by Adam Dean, as well as Circle of Blue reporters Aaron Jaffe and and Keith Schneider.
Choke Point: China is an on-going Circle of Blue series, produced in partnership with the Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum. Through frontline reporting, the project finds new and powerful evidence of a ruinous confrontation between water, food, and energy that is visible across China and is virtually certain to grow more dire over the next decade. Choke Point: China is part of Global Choke Point, which is uncovering new data and strategic narratives about water, food, and energy in the world’s most vulnerable regions.
water pollution contamination china xian shanxi province pesticide plastic bottle irrigation canal agriculture

Photo © Keith Schneider / Circle of Blue   Trash and other debris, including empty plastic pesticide containers, foul an irrigation canal near Xian in Shanxi Province.                            Click image to enlarge slideshow.

Seawater greenhouse – just add solar

 Seawater greenhouse – just add solar

By Sophie Vorrath -RenewEconomy on 19 April 2012

South Australia’s Port Augusta, with its abundant solar resource, has recently been pegged as the ideal location for the development of a concentrating solar thermal power plant – and understandably so.

But what about a 2000 square metre greenhouse? It would seem an unlikely match for hot, dry Port August, yet while the region’s CSP plant proposal remains just that, an enormous solar-powered greenhouse has indeed been built – and it’s producing a fine crop of tomatoes.
Behind the project is Sundrop Farms: a group of international scientists (and an investment banker) whose goal has been to devise a system of growing crops that doesn’t require a fresh water supply. How does it work? “It all begins with a 70 metre-long stretch of solar panels,” says Pru Adam’s on ABC Radio’s Landline: a series of concave mirrors which focus the sun’s energy onto a black tube that runs through the centre of the panels. The tube is filled with thermal oil, which is superheated up to 160°C, then pumped through the tube back to a little storage shed, where its heat is transferred to a water storage system. Some of this stored heat goes towards greenhouse temperature control, some to powering the facility, but most is used for desalination of the tidal bore water. When the heat goes to the thermal desal unit it meets up with relatively cold seawater and the temperature difference creates condensation.
“It’s pretty simple to understand,” said Reinier Wolterbeek, Sundrop’s project manager and head of technology development, in a 2010 television interview with Southern Cross News. “If you have a fresh water bottle from your refrigerator, and you put it in a room, then condensation forms on the sides. That’s more or less what we try to mimic over here; the cold sea water, from the ground, we put it through plastic tubes, we blow hot, very moist air against these plastic tubes, condensation forms on the tubes, we catch the condensation, and that’s actually the irrigation for the tomato crops.” The brine ends up in ponds and the salt can be extracted as a saleable by-product.
Sundrop Farms Solar Desalination
So, while this large-ish commercial-scale greenhouse (they’ve tested a smaller version in Oman), perched, as Adams describes it, “in the remains of flogged-out farmland,” really is an incongruous sight in Port Augusta, it’s there for good reason.
“We looked on a world map, and funnily enough, Port Augusta is the ideal place,” Wolterbeek told Southern Cross News. “It’s really close to the sea, so we have a lot of seawater available, and it’s very dry, which is good for the process of the technology.”
Philipp Saumweber, Sundrop’s managing director who is a former Goldman Sachs investment banker with an economics degree from Harvard, describes the project as unique. “Nobody has done what we’re doing before and to our knowledge nobody has done something even similar,” Saumweber told Landline. “What we think is so unique about our system is we’re not just addressing either an energy issue or a water issue, we’re really addressing both of those together to produce food from abundant resources and do that in a sustainable way.”
David Travers – CEO of the University College London’s Adelaide office, who became Sundrop’s chairman after being convinced of the merit of its technology – agrees. “Well it’s unique in the sense that it’s the only example we’re aware of in the world where there’s that complete integration of the collection of solar energy, the desalination of water, the production of energy sources from electricity through to heating and storage and then the growing of plants, in this case tomatoes and capsicums, in a greenhouse environment,” he told Landline. “It’s the totality of that system that makes it quite unique.”
AND Below:

The energy-water nexus, 2012 edition … a must read

By Chris Nelder | August 22, 2012, 1:46 AM PDT

For full story: http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/energy-futurist/the-energy-water-nexus-2012-edition/560


A blistering summer this year has brought the energy-water nexus into sharp focus: how much power generation depends on water, and how much our water systems depend on power.

We’ve had the hottest July on record in the continental United States, and so far 2012 ranks as the tenth-warmest year on record globally, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The heat forced the shutdown of the Millstone Unit 2 reactor at the Dominion Nuclear Connecticut plant in Waterford, Connecticut last Monday, when the water temperature in Long Island Sound reached a toasty 76.7 degrees, over the 75 degree limit for the plant’s cooling water. (As of this writing more than a week later, the reactor is still offline.) I suspect that heat may have played a role in forcing other nuclear plants to shut down in July, by causing electrical component failures. These shutdowns, along with others forced by faulty equipment, have taken U.S. nuclear generation to its lowest level in a decade, according to New Scientist.

The interdependencies of water, power generation, food, and climate are not news. We’ve had shutdowns of power plants due to summertime heat for the past decade or more. But the problem does seem to be getting worse every year.

Water for electricity generation

With the exception of hydroelectric and solar photovoltaic power plants, the core of a utility-scale power plant is essentially the same steam engine technology that was first used to generate electricity by Charles Parsons 125 years ago (which in turn was based on the perfection of the steam engine in 1769 by James Watt, after whom the power unit is named). Heat on one side of the engine causes gas to expand, then the heat is dumped on the cold side of the engine, causing the gas to condense again. The expanding and contracting gas makes the engine spin, turning an array of magnets and electromagnetic coils, which then converts the mechanical energy into electricity.

Water is most commonly used to remove the heat on the cold side. Some power plants are air-cooled, but they are less efficient (particularly in hot weather) because they’re less cold.

This makes the thermoelectric power sector — which generates 91 percent of the electricity in the U.S. — one of the nation’s largest water consumers. It accounts for 41 percent of freshwater withdrawals and about three percent of freshwater consumption, where 99 percent of the water used is surface water. According to the Sandia report, thermoelectric power generation in the U.S. consumes 3.3 billion gallons of water per day in total.

When water supply is insufficient (or insufficiently cold), it forces power plants to scale back or shut down altogether. That’s also when power demand for air conditioning is likely to be highest, stressing power transmission lines and creating ideal conditions for brown-outs or grid failures.

Water for energy production

The water needed for electrical power generation is vast. But the water demand for producing oil, coal and gas is enormous too, and even less elastic.

Fracking – the process that has brought a fresh boost of oil and gas production to the U.S. in recent years – consumes between 70 and 140 billion gallons of fresh water per year, according to a 2011 report from the EPA. At a typical consumption of 100 gallons of water per person per day in the U.S., that’s equivalent to the needs of two to four million people.

Trying to find reliable data for on the water demand of U.S. corn ethanol production is a short path to utter insanity, with a ridiculously large range of estimates offered. After reviewing a dozen or so academic papers and other sources, I concluded that a 2010 study by the Argonne National Laboratory was in the right ballpark. It estimated that it takes 82 gallons of water on average to produce 1 gallon of ethanol in the regions responsible for 88 percent of U.S. corn production, where the vast majority of that water is used for irrigation.

Petroleum refining also consumes a great deal of water: one to two billion gallons per day, according to the aforementioned Sandia study. Perhaps more usefully, the Argonne study puts water consumption for petroleum (which presumably includes water for petroleum extraction using enhanced oil recovery methods) in terms of water consumed per mile by passenger cars. Against 2,025,396 million vehicle-miles traveled by passenger cars in 2010, according to the Federal Highway Administration, the Argonne estimate works out to between 203 and 608 billion gallons of water per year consumed for petroleum.

In sum, the freshwater demand of our current production and refining of fossil fuels might be around two trillion gallons per year at the high end.

Energy for water production

The flip side of the energy-water nexus is also challenging. Webber estimates about 10 percent of U.S. electricity is used for waste and wastewater management. But in agricultural areas, it’s much higher. A 2005 study by the California Energy Commission found that one-fifth of the state’s electrical power is used to pump, treat, transport, heat, cool, and recycle water.

Water desalination also requires an enormous amount of energy: over 9,800 kWh per million gallons, according to Webber. As energy costs rise, so will the cost of turning saltwater into freshwater.

Water for energy transport

For a final perspective on the energy-water nexus, consider the Mighty Mississippi, which isn’t so mighty this year. Water levels on the country’s inland water transport backbone have reached near-historic lows, forcing barge operators to cut their loads by as much as 25 percent to avoid hitting bottom. In turn, this has increased shipping prices along the river.

A pair of images posted by NASA show how dramatically the river has changed since last year, with huge sandbars now exposed.


Mississippi River, August 14, 2011.          Mississippi River, August 8, 2012.                      Source: NASA

According to data from American Waterways Operators cited in a recent post at Climate Progress, the Mississippi carries 22 percent of the oil and gas and 20 percent of the coal transported in the U.S.

It is feared that the low-water condition could persist through the fall season. If that is the case, it could add a non-trivial cost to the fuels that traverse the river, and slow deliveries to power plants both foreign and domestic, further increasing the pressure on power generators.

Final thoughts

As mentioned earlier, wind power and solar photovoltaics are exceptions to the energy-water nexus. No water is needed to produce power from those sources, and insignificant amounts of water are involved in the production of the equipment. Marine energy, although being fundamentally a water-based technology, does not consume fresh water; it just moves around in salt water. In a warming world, these power sources will have a clear advantage. Conversely, hydroelectric power, being intrinsically dependent on rainfall, makes it an uncertain option in a future of changing climate.

Traditional geothermal plants need water for the cooling cycle, consuming about 1,400 gals/MWh per the Sandia study, as do traditional solar thermal plants, which consume 750 to 920 gals/MWh

A final thought: Updating the energy-water nexus story came with the disturbing realization that the data quality on this extremely important subject is poor. Apart from the Sandia report and one or two others, there seems to be a dearth of good, recent studies. Models of how climate change may affect energy and water in the future appear to be virtually non-existent. The available estimates of water demand and their deltas are much too large to be really useful to policymakers or investors, and the time vector is missing altogether. Compared to our data on energy markets, the energy-water data are pathetic.

I don’t know why that is. Perhaps we’re just beginning to discover the hard limits of our energy and water resources and it’s simply a new subject. Perhaps we’re still struggling to get our arms around its complexity. But given our enormous vulnerability and dependency on these systems, we must do better. Government agencies, NGOs, academia, scientific organizations and investors really need to get on the ball to better quantify the challenges in the energy-water nexus, and find ways to produce more energy with less water and more water with less energy.

Photo: The Millstone Power Station Unit 2 (Nuclear Regulatory Commission/Flickr)

Oceans could supply 10 percent power – in Australia

By Lieu Thi Pham | August 8, 2012, 2:30 AM PDT

MELBOURNE — A new study by the CSIRO (the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization), revealed that Australia’s oceans could supply 10 percent of the country’s electricity by 2050. This is the equivalent of powering a city the size of Melbourne, which has a population of around four million.
The Australian science agency study investigated the potential of harnessing the energy of the oceans — from waves, tides, currents and thermal energy — to power the country’s electricity from 2015 to 2050.
Their report, Ocean Renewable Energy: 2015-2050, showed that there are tremendous energy resources in Australia’s southern oceans, in particular near the west coast of Tasmania, the southern ocean in Victoria, and the south-west ocean of Western Australia.
This is the first time in Australia that ocean-based renewable energy has been assessed from resource to market development. Dr Susan Wijffels, a spokesperson for the CSIRO, said that the findings showed that wave power could be integral to Australia’s renewable energy plan.
“The idea [of ocean power] has been around for a very long time,” Dr Wijffels said. “It’s getting attention now because some countries are currently looking at how viable some of these technologies are. I suspect it has to do with the policy setting in an energy market.”
There are at least 200 wave energy converter (WEC) devices that extract the energy from either the surface motion of the waves or the pressure fluctuations below the surface. The range of this energy capture varies between devices and to differing degree of success.Some companies are currently conducting pilot tests and commercial demonstrations.
There are three main classes of WEC devices that can be loaded in various depths: Point absorber (a float that is free to follow the movement of the wave and gather wave energy from any direction); linear attenuator (a float aligned in the direction of the wave); and terminator (a device that faces the wave directly to collect the energy).
The fact that around 80 percent of Australia’s population live in coastal areas, suggests that wave power will play a very significant part in the country’s energy future.
Dr Wijffels claims that wave power holds many key advantages over solar and wind power, including its consistency (waves are generated both day and night), and predictability as an energy resource.
Solar and wind are subjected to sudden changes in weather, whereas wave power comes from the momentum of an ocean storm that can often take days to reach our shores.
“If you get a longer lead time, then you know that wave plant will give you power. The people that manage our electricity supply in the future will want to know when and how much renewable energy is coming in and how it will fit in to the grid,” she said.
“The other big challenge we have is getting the grid ready. How to shift power across the country very cheaply, quickly and in large volumes,” Dr Wijffels said.
She contends that the technology has the potential to be cost-effective, but this will largely be dependent on overcoming engineering challenges such as creating efficient energy farms and harvesters.
“Water is really heavy. When water is moving, it gets moved by either tidal forces or waves, and that’s a lot of momentum. The energy density, as a resource, is much higher than wind. If we can get the turbines to work efficiency, we’re using less real estate for more power. If we can build really efficient extractors that can be made cheap enough to maintain, then that advantage could be realised,” she says.
The CSIRO are careful to point out that there are many economic, technological, environmental and societal challenges that will determine wave energy’s place in Australia’s future energy mix. These include investigating the wider impacts of the technology as it relates to issues such as as marine life and aquaculture.
The CSIRO hopes that their report will encourage the renewable energy industry, government and the public to think seriously about the opportunities, as well as the challenges, for ocean technology in Australia.
Photo: WHL Travel/Flickr
Extract from: http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/global-observer/in-australia-oceans-could-supply-10-percent-power/6680?tag=nl.e660

Local thoughts on food, water & energy security


As we discussed, below are a few thoughts around the topics of water, food and energy.

1. Energy

Unfortunately there is no silver bullet when it comes to transitioning to a carbon constrained future. Although some will argue that there is no evidence of man made climate change, this is just one of the consequences associated with the increase of CO©ü within the atmosphere. The greater effect will be the acidification of the oceans and the associated breakdown of oceanographic food chains. This will be become more evident as we discuss food security.

There will need to be a suite of energy sources, including coal in the short term, and will be dependent on geographical locations. Fortunately for the The Bellarine  there is a large variety of energy sources available. Wind, tidal, waste to energy and PV solar are all viable small scale solutions, and with the Otway basin natural gas field and nearby Geothermal projects under development, the region could be self sufficient and even a net generator of energy. 

Nationally the creation of large scale solar thermal plant will be able to provide 24 hour/day base load power. Although this will require the will of both the people and politicians to make happen as it will be a large infrastructure investment.

2. Water

I think it may have been Mark Twain or WC Fields who said "Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting over." Although we may have plenty today and the water authorities are saying that they have enough for the next five years, this is based on us getting average rain fall over that period. The climate models are predicting that South Eastern Australia will be overall dryer over the next ten year. This is also born out by the current state of the Southern Oscillation Index that has been negative for the past three months and is continuing on that trend and other makers that indicate we are on the boundary of an El Nino event.

We need to learn from the Israelis and recycle water for multiple reuse purposes. This means cascading its use, drinking / eating, washing / showering, flushing, watering, and done on a small to medium scale within the home or local community. Pumping it all the way to the Water Reclamation Plant and back again is simply a waste of energy resources. This could easily be demonstrated within development projects, however what we see currently is multimillion dollar centralised ¡®A¡¯ class plants being built in order to return the water to the estates many kilometres away.

Water will become a rare commodity and although I have talked generally about its recycle use on a local small scale there is an opportunity on The Bellarine to take advantage of the Black Rock WRP which current has an average influent of 55ML/day.                                       A reuse strategy needs to be developed with community consultation to establish the best method of water use. This may require changes to crop locations and types to take best  advantage of the resource.

3. Food

Food security is linked directly to the two previous topics, however ensuring financially viable crop production is difficult when considering the price at the farm gate regardless of a plentiful water supply. As around the Werribee area, consideration should be given to vegetable growth production to take advantage of recycled water availability. Across the combined regions and access to Avalon Airport we should be able to be self sufficient for a large variety of vegetables and develop an export market.

I have attached a WHO report on food trends for your review. It talks about “the proteins derived from fish, crustaceans and molluscs account for between 13.8% and 16.5% of the animal protein intake of the human population”. The region has an opportunity to set up high value niche markets sending fresh and processed shellfish produce to Asia while again being self sufficient. Mussels, abalone and scallops are all native to the region and are ideal high value products. I have my original files from the preliminary concepts for scallop aquaculture that I would be happy to share.

World fisheries are in decline and an international cooperative is required to address this issue. Wild fish restocking by nations could be the answer. Free range fish? (I am not sure you can solve this on The Bellarine)

Here, however is my concern for the medium term viability of the ocean. The increased atmospheric CO©ü is being sequested into the worlds oceans (Daltons law of partial pressure). This is in turn altering the ocean chemistry thus increasing the acidity. The increased acidity is impairing the ability of calcifying organisms to develop shell and plate calcium carbonate structures. Research within this area is on going, however if the trend continues there will be a break in the food chain that will be devastating to ocean food production. The consequences of this situation has not yet been fully realised. This is the most compelling case for move quickly to a carbon constrained economy.

It’s not all doom and gloom there is plenty we can do. Work with like minded, passionate people to educate others and develop strategies and set direction for the region. A university base research and development town with niche businesses in high quality produce, biomedical engineering and specialty materials on the doorstep of an international airport would be a good place to start.

Talk soon,   Steve


PS:   All comments welcome

Current marine vessels surrounding the Bellarine,

The map below shows current marine vessels in the ocean and bay surrounding the
Bellarine, and their identification and heading in near real time as
supplied by AIS on MarineTraffic.com

Drag map to Bellarine and zoom in if centered elsewhere.
Place your mouse over the vessel icons for more information.
This service discontinued, please go to