Water and Energy

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As we have seen, for the human race to reach its full potential, and to secure a sustainable future, we need water, food and industrial production. What we have not yet acknowledged is that, except for a relatively small percentage, we could not have any of the above without energy.

All the more striking then that 2 billion of Earth’s inhabitants have no energy at all, and an additional 1 billion rely on batteries, candles and kerosene. 3 million use biomass fuel and coal for cooking and home heating. With this type of need, it is not surprising that demand for electricity is growing, and that consumption is expected to increase some 15% in the next 20 years. Developed countries are currently accessing only 70% of their true electricity potential, while developing nations are utilizing only 15% of their potential. Lack of energy in the developing world is just one more obstacle to breaking out of poverty. Beyond higher costs, absent or restricted energy means women are burdened with fetching water and gathering wood for fuel, employment opportunities are few and far between, educational facilities are unlit and low tech, large scale agriculture is undermined and health services in general are compromised. This multi-faceted assault on basic needs is a reality in both urban and rural environments. As to what is the best source of energy, electricity is a clear winner, at least for lighting, generating 10 times the light at less than the cost of kerosene.

Electricity changes women’s lives. From household duties to gathering fuel, the daily load is lighter. Managing chores and stress opens time for productive employment, for education, for relationship building. Lighting in the evening permits learning. Micro-enterprises either consume fuel as in cooking or utilize lighting as with home based evening work. Without electricity, many ventures are no longer profitable or safe. Also, in the absence of electricity, low efficiency bio-mass stores create an internal environment filled with carbon monoxide, carcinogens, and particulate matter, which undermine family health.

From a pure health perspective, electricity is a life enhancer. Food preparation is more secure and water can be boiled. Fires are less likely. Health facilities can refrigerate and sterilize, and operate at night. And health information and instructions can be mass communicated. But in rural settings, cost/benefit weighs in. Except for lighting, you can accomplish domestic tasks less expensively with other fuels. Water can be hand pumped. High efficiency stoves can use fossil fuels. However, as personal economy or expectations for improved standard of living through entrepreneurship arises, electricity becomes a critical lever. The challenge is to manage its distribution so as not to exacerbate existing disparities.

In the developing world, Africa lags considerably behind Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean in access to domestic electricity. As of 1995, the numbers were dramatic. Chad – 2.8% of households with electricity, Central African Republic – 5%, Uganda – 6.9%, Niger – 7.9%, Tanzania – 8.9%, Mozambique – 9.9% , Madagascar – 11.1%, Kenya – 11.7%, Nigeria 25.5%. Of 22 nations noted in the survey, only 3 approach access for 1/3 of their population. In Asia, only Nepal (18%) and Bangladesh (25%) are similarly deprived. India (51.5%) and Morocco (46.9%) fall in a mid-range, while the remaining 7 nations noted range from 63% to 99%. In Latin America and the Caribbean, Haiti is an outlier at 31%, Paraguay (49.2%) and Guatemala (58.7%) in mid-range, with the remaining 6 between 67% and 93%. In all areas, access to electricity tracks with income levels, with the poor severely impacted.

In rural areas, 85% of energy is consumed by homes, primarily for cooking and heating. Agriculture consumes only about 5%. Commercial energy, mainly for lighting, accounts for less than 10% of use in village enterprises. As means rise, better lighting is a top priority. With it comes extension of the work day and enhancements in productivity. As means rise further, the comparative luxuries of refrigeration and cooling are fueled.

As integrated planning for sustainable development has expanded, and priorities are weighed, often one against the other. Water and energy intersect dramatically in the area of hydropower. Underutilized, accessible, clean and relatively well distributed, hydropower holds significant promise. As of 2001, hydropower provided 19% of the world’s total electricity. 64% of global energy was thermal, and 17% was nuclear. (Table 6.1) Of total potential hydropower resources, 26% is currently in place, 3% under construction, and 71% still to be built and placed on line. Of the existing capacity, some 94% is derived from large hydroelectric projects, while 6% comes from small local access projects. Hydropower currently supplies 50% of electrical production in 66 countries and at least 90% in twenty four countries.

Approximately half of all water power comes from Europe and North America. The US is the second largest producer of hydroelectric where it accounts for 12% of total electric production.(Table 6.2) Hydropower is already the dominant power source in many developing nations as well, including Afghanistan, Congo, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nepal, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Uganda and Zaire. China’s investment in hydroelectric is unparalleled. Hydroelectric projects currently in construction including the Three Gorges Dam will produce 50 gigawatts of electricity, doubling the countries current capacity. An additional 28 gigawatts of construction are about to begin with 80 gigawatts of hydro projects in the planning stages. In addition, China has some 60,000 small (less than 1 megawatt) hydroelectric schemes.

Hydroelectric is a critical element in the campaign to control global warming from greenhouse gases. Every additional terawatt of hydropower per hour, in displacing coal generated electricity, eliminates 1 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted into the atmosphere. As of 1995, human activities were generating some 23 billion tons of CO2 a year, one third of which was produced by combustion of coal, oil and gas.

In our modern world, hydroelectric has a great deal to offer. It’s efficient and environmentally sensitive. It is sustainable in rural and urban settings. It emits no greenhouse gases, wastes or air pollutants. It is renewable, efficient, flexible, uses existing technology, and is low maintenance; and decreases pollutants from fossil fuel. These advantages need to be weighed against disadvantages including high initial cost, impact on habitats, potential disturbance of water quality, and forced migration of local populations. In addition, for large projects, one must add in the cost of connecting to the electric grid. Large scale and centrally managed grid options can prove a failure economically and ecologically. (Table 6.3) Much has been learned however from these failures and there now exists a World Commission on Dams which is a unique consultative, planning, construction and management resource. Small scale, environmentally sound, off grid hydropower schemes are also increasingly popular. These efforts capture the mechanical energy from water movement and convert it to electrical energy. The components include a reservoir, hydraulic controlled outlet, water channel directing flow to a turbine, power generation equipment, and an exit channel to reunite water to a natural catch basin.

Mini and micro-hydropower projects avoid large dams, do not displace large populations, and deliver electricity locally. Though small, the positive impacts can be considerable. A 1 megawatt plant will produce 6000 megawatts of electricity for use by 1500 families. To do the same with coal means dumping 4000 tons of CO2 and 275 tons of sulfur dioxide into the local environment. Most are “run of the river” schemes, which leave rivers intact, do not flood lands up stream, or interfere with seasonal river flow downstream. There are no expensive flow controls. When the river is flowing, turbines operate and energy is produced. Construction of such a system is quite economical and usually managed using in-country expertise and readily available technology. One major negative is that such systems are decentralized and disconnected from each other and therefore resist distributive planning or movements toward economy of scale.

Where else might we find natural, sustainable energy? One obvious site is the ocean. Energy experts are developing approaches to capturing ocean energy in three differing forms: mechanical energy trapped in the tidal flow of water; wind energy trapped in the waves; and thermal energy stored in warm surface waters. The earth’s surface as well may be a source of geothermal energy in the future, either through steam and hot water stores within the earth, or geothermal heat pumps that advantage temperature differentials in the earth.

So we see energy presents the human race with a wide variety of complex choices. To date we have largely fueled development with fossil fuel generated energy. This choice over the past 100 years has sustained rapid growth and progress for a portion of our citizens. But 100 years is a very short time, and the negative impacts of this decision are already visible in the quality of our air, land and water. In fueling progress, we have created a CO2 burden that is changing our weather patterns, and is difficult to reverse. Clearly new energy solutions are in demand. And many energy experts around the world are looking to water for the answers.