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Thirst for Power: Energy, Water, and Human Survival

Thirst for Power: Energy, Water, and Human Survival

by Michael E. Webber

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How changing the way we think about water and energy can secure the long-term sustainability of both precious resources

Although it is widely understood that energy and water are the world’s two most critical resources, their vital interconnections and vulnerabilities are less often recognized. This farsighted book offers a new, holistic way of


How changing the way we think about water and energy can secure the long-term sustainability of both precious resources

Although it is widely understood that energy and water are the world’s two most critical resources, their vital interconnections and vulnerabilities are less often recognized. This farsighted book offers a new, holistic way of thinking about energy and water—a big picture approach that reveals the interdependence of the two resources, identifies the seriousness of the challenges, and lays out an optimistic approach with an array of solutions to ensure the continuing sustainability of both.

Michael Webber, a leader and teacher in the field of energy technology and policy, explains how energy and water supplies are linked and how problems in either can be crippling for the other. He shows that current population growth, economic growth, climate change, and short-sighted policies are likely to make things worse. Yet, Webber asserts, more integrated planning with long-term sustainability in mind can avert such a daunting future. Combining anecdotes and personal stories with insights into the latest science of energy and water, he identifies a hopeful path toward wise long-range water-energy decisions and a more reliable and abundant future for humanity.

Editorial Reviews

Martin J. Pasqualetti

“For those concerned about water and energy—which should be everybody—Michael Webber has produced a jewel of a book.”—Martin J. Pasqualetti, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, Arizona State University
Philip Mezey

“A highly accessible and engaging overview of one of humanity’s most pressing problems and opportunities. How we manage energy and water will shape the twenty-first century, and with guides like Dr. Webber we can use policy, technology, and economics to craft cleaner, more efficient solutions.”—Philip Mezey, President and CEO, Itron, Inc.
Susan Tierney

“Webber makes a compelling case for pursuing both technological and nontechnical solutions for managing the water-energy nexus. He observes that ‘in the end, the most important innovation we need is a new way of thinking about energy and water so that we make better decisions about these precious resources’ and lays out the case for why and how to do that. This is an important and deeply readable book.”—Susan Tierney, Analysis Group
Jason Bordoff

“Few, if any, issues are more important to humanity’s well-being over the next half century than the transition to cleaner energy and access to abundant, safe, and clean water. Michael Webber’s well-researched and detailed, yet highly readable, new book takes the reader on a journey of the water-energy nexus and lays out concrete and actionable technical and policy solutions. This book provides a valuable road map for how to protect our most critical resources for future generations.”—Jason Bordoff, Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy
Bill White

“Michael Webber describes in clear prose the complex and often-surprising relationship between humanity's most important scarce resources—water and power. An important book for both citizens and specialists.”—Bill White, former mayor of Houston and U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy
Robert Wilkinson

Thirst for Power is a masterful work. Webber expertly navigates the confluence of critical water and energy issues, providing valuable insights into the deep nexus between the two.”—Robert Wilkinson, University of California Santa Barbara
Jeff Opperman

“With clear and compelling writing, Webber takes the reader on an exploration of critically important systems—those for energy and water—that few people understand. Even fewer realize that these systems are thoroughly intertwined. And while Webber provides concise explanations of many of the technical solutions needed to move the world toward sustainable water and energy, he makes it clear that the most important solutions are non-technical: we need a revolution in how we think about these systems so we can manage them in an integrated and holistic way.”—Jeff Opperman, Director and Lead Scientist of The Nature Conservancy’s Great Rivers Program
Austin Troy

“Engagingly written and meticulously researched, Thirst for Power makes a convincing argument for the interconnectedness of water and energy throughout human civilization. Webber makes the reader realize that today, more than ever, understanding this linkage and building relevant solutions is critical to the sustained wellbeing of humankind.”—Austin Troy, author of The Very Hungry City
David Sedlak

“The premise is compelling and timely. The strength of the book is its clear explanation of ways in which water is used in the production of energy and how the existing system is likely to come under considerable strain in the future.”—David Sedlak, author of Water 4.0
Choice - E. Gomezdelcampo

“Concise, relevant, and engaging”—E. Gomezdelcampo, Choice
Kirkus Reviews
An exploration of the link between impending global water and power shortages. As Webber (Mechanical Engineering/Univ. of Texas; Changing the Way America Thinks About Energy: A Compendium of Commentary, 2009 etc.), deputy director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas, notes, "1.1 billion people [lack] access to clean water sources for drinking, cooking, and washing." Meeting their needs is a pressing public health problem, he writes, but delivering that access "will require a lot of energy for treatment and transport to where it is needed." In the author's view, "the grand challenge" of this century is providing "clean water, indoor lighting, [and a] comfortable way of life to every global citizen." However, accomplishing this without irreversibly affecting the environment will be extremely difficult. With the use of satellite imagery in the past 15 years, it has become possible to estimate changes in the amount of groundwater globally. Unfortunately, writes Webber, "the amount of water in our bank account" is decreasing at an alarming rate. Satellite tracking reveals serious depletion of aquifers in India. Large dams such as the Three Gorges Dam in China are beneficial for controlling floods, providing irrigation for crops, and providing sources of hydroelectric power, but they also damage the local ecology, flood fertile land, and displace human and fish populations. Alternative and nuclear energies are attractive options to replace petroleum, but their use of water must also be considered. Throughout the book, Webber provides examples of the complexity of the issues at hand—e.g. growing corn, which needs irrigation, as a biofuel. The author proposes more sophisticated methods for recycling water, with different standards for purity depending on end use—e.g., separating the delivery for drinking water and sanitation and for industrial processes and irrigation. A wide-ranging, nuanced view of difficult but important issues that require serious consideration at every level, from policymakers, opinion shapers, and educators down to everyday citizens.

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Yale University Press
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Thirst for Power

Energy, Water, and Human Survival

By Michael E. Webber


Copyright © 2016 Michael E. Webber
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-22106-0


Healthy, Wealthy, and Free

When I talk about Georgia in the same sentence with an undemocratic land grab from a neighboring territory, people often assume I am referring to the country formerly part of the Soviet Union. But I'm not — water shortages can turn allies, even neighboring American states, into competitors. In 2008, the state of Georgia in the United States wanted land because it needed water: a year earlier various rivers dropped so low that the drought-stricken state was within a few weeks of shutting down its own nuclear plants. Water conditions had become so dire that the Georgia state legislature considered a resolution to move the state's upper border a mile farther north, cutting across the Nickajack Reservoir to annex freshwater resources in Tennessee. The justification for the boundary adjustment was an allegedly faulty border survey from 1818. That is, Georgia was trying to use a two-hundred-year-old map to execute a land grab to capture some water that otherwise was under the control of Tennessee. One Tennessee state senator, recognizing the importance of American football in the southeastern United States, jokingly suggested that the dispute should be settled with a football game between rival schools in the two states. That attempt failed, but water remains contentious for those states and their neighbors. Since then Georgia, Alabama, and Florida have continued to battle, with multiple lawsuits and allegations. Drought is only one cause. A rapidly growing population, especially in Atlanta, as well as over-development and a notorious lack of water planning, is running the region's rivers dry. Production of thirsty energy sources just exacerbates the situation.

But this isn't a crisis striking only close to home; it's global. In July 2012, the electric grid in India failed, causing the largest blackout in history. It affected more than 620 million people, 9 percent of the world's population. Although there were many reasons for the power outage, it was a lack of water that triggered the Indian collapse. A major drought in India that summer increased the demand for electricity at the same time that it reduced electricity production. Because of the drought, farmers increased their irrigation of crops using electric pumps. Those pumps, working furiously under the hot sun, increased the demand for power, straining the grid. At the same time, low water levels meant that power generation at hydroelectric dams was lower than normal, making it doubly hard for the power sector to meet summer demand. Even worse, floods earlier in the year had caused dams to silt up with runoff from farms, reducing their available capacity even before the low water levels made things worse. A double water whammy of flood then drought hobbled the hydroelectric dams. The result? A population larger than all of Europe and twice as large as the United States was plunged into darkness, with railways and other critical services brought to a sudden halt.

Energy and water are the world's two most critical resources, but what many don't understand is even more significant: the two are intricately interconnected. They are like a hall of mirrors going on endlessly: energy needs water which needs energy which needs water ... And strains in one can be crippling for the other with catastrophic consequences. In many ways, strains in the nexus of energy and water are our generation's Cold War — a global crisis spanning decades that we need to solve or the future of humanity will look very different.

Virtually everywhere we look, signs of the extent of this crisis abound. The same summer of the blackout in India, a massive heat wave and record-setting drought swept across most of the United States, putting power plants in peril because cooling water was scarce or too hot to be effective. A few years earlier, the state of Florida made an unusual announcement: it would sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the Corps' plan to reduce water flow from reservoirs in Georgia into the Apalachicola River, which runs through Florida from the Georgia-Alabama border. Environmentalists were concerned that the restricted flow would threaten certain endangered species. Regulators in Alabama also objected, worried about another species: nuclear power plants, which use enormous quantities of water, usually drawn from rivers and lakes, for cooling. The reduced flow raised the specter that the Farley Nuclear Plant near Dothan, Alabama, would need to shut down.

In California, two of its fabled nuclear reactors are sited on the coast between Los Angeles and San Diego. As one drives along I-5 between the cities, these nuclear reactors look surprisingly like two gigantic concrete breasts rising above the coast, just beside the highway and silhouetted by the ocean. Despite their evocative shape and their appealing, innocent-sounding name — SONGS, which stands for San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station — SoCal Edison announced that these plants would be shut down, partly because of water. Ongoing concerns that the nuclear power plants put ocean life at risk from entrainment of cooling water and the potential for radiation leaks that could contaminate the water along with other technical challenges became too burdensome to manage. It was easier to shut down the plant than to solve the radiation leaks and water problems to the satisfaction of the public.

Outside Las Vegas, Lake Mead, fed by the Colorado River, is now routinely one hundred feet lower than historic levels. As it stands, Las Vegas draws its drinking water from two straws that tap into Lake Mead. If the lake drops another fifty feet, the city's water supply will be threatened and the huge hydroelectric turbines inside Hoover Dam on the lake would provide little or no power, potentially putting the booming desert metropolis in the dark while leaving its occupants thirsty. Las Vegas' solution is to spend nearly $1 billion on a third straw that goes deeper, coming from underneath and up into the lake from the bottom. But even that drastic solution might not work. Scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, have declared that Lake Mead could become dry by 2021 if the climate changes as expected and water users who depend on the Colorado River do not curtail their withdrawals. We can argue about whether the glass if half-full or half-empty, but an engineer will point out that the length of your straw does not matter if the glass is dry.

Communities in water-strained Texas and New Mexico, wary of the water risks posed by hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas production from shale formations, have imposed prohibitions or constraints on what water (if any) could be used for fuel extraction, even though the amount of water required by shale production is small compared with agriculture. Activists opposed to oil and gas production use concerns about possible water pollution as the rallying cry to halt increases in drilling.

Energy can be a limiting factor for water, too. San Diego, which needs more drinking water because of its growth and the pervasive California droughts, has sought to build a desalination plant on the coast. But local activists have fought the facility — it would consume so much energy, and the power supply is thin. For the same reason, the mayor of London denied a proposed desalination plant in 2005, only to have his successor later rescind that denial. Politicians in Uruguay must choose whether they want the water in their reservoirs to be used for drinking or for electricity. Saudi Arabian leaders wrestle with whether to export the country's oil and gas to earn hard currency or to burn more of those resources at home to produce what it does not have: freshwater for its people and its cities.

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in August 2005, the destruction was awe-inspiring. Amazingly, the city was peaceful after the hurricane passed ... at least initially. But the widespread power outage meant that the water system — including pumps to keep low-lying areas dry and the treatment facilities that clean the water to potable standards — quit working. It was only when people realized that their drinking water was contaminated and that their neighborhoods were not going to be pumped dry anytime soon that chaos broke out. An energy shortage sparked a water shortage, destabilizing society.

We cannot build more power plants with the same old design or extract more oil and gas with outdated techniques without realizing that they impinge on our freshwater supplies. And we cannot build more water delivery and cleaning facilities the same way we always have without driving up energy demand. If we continue in the direction we're going, widespread vulnerabilities in our interconnected water and energy systems will worsen with population growth, economic growth, and climate change, all of which exacerbate the strain. Sadly, we often compound the problems with self-inflicted policy decisions that push us toward more energy-intensive water and more water-intensive energy.

Despite the importance of each and the close relationship between energy and water, the funding, policymaking, and oversight of these resources are typically performed by different people in separate agencies. Energy planners often assume they will have the water they need and water planners assume they will have the energy they need. If one of these assumptions fails, the consequences can be dramatic, as the blackouts in India demonstrated.

But we can stop this downward spiral if we seize all the potential advantages to the nexus of energy and water. With abundant, clean, reliable, affordable energy we can solve our water problems by desalting oceans, digging deeper wells, and moving water thousands of miles uphill to thirsty people and crops. And with abundant, clean, reliable, affordable water, we can solve our energy problems by building hydroelectric systems to generate all the electricity we could ever desire, and we could grow our way out of our oil problem by irrigating biofuels. But because we don't have infinite resources, we're dealing with a world of constraints instead. While the challenges are difficult and the potential risks are great, with new thinking and some clever innovation we can manage this problem for a better future.

Solving the dilemma requires new policies that integrate energy and water solutions and innovative technologies that help to boost one resource without draining the other. Thankfully, we have technical solutions that make sense. There are water-lean energy options and energy-lean water options that we could implement. But we do not typically select them because the world's politicians and decision-makers have not fully grasped the interrelatedness of these resources, and policymakers, as well as engineers, are isolated and confined to either water or energy systems.

There's potential for more good news: because we use so much energy for water and so much water for energy, we have the opportunity for cross-cutting conservation. By saving water, we can save energy, and by saving energy, we can save water. Most of us don't realize that we use more water for our light switches and electrical outlets than our faucets and showerheads because the water is used to cool power plants far away, out of sight and out of mind. It also doesn't occur to us that as a nation we use more energy to heat, treat, and pump our water than we use for lighting. Counterintuitive to what we'd expect, turning off the lights and appliances saves vast amounts of water, and turning off the water saves vast amounts of energy.

In the end, the most important innovation we need is a new way of thinking about energy and water so that we make better decisions about these precious resources: holistic thinking that recognizes these resources as interconnected, and a systems-level approach that acknowledges how one change in one state to a water system could impact an energy system five states away. Most important, we need long-range thinking because our energy and water decisions last decades to centuries, so it's imperative that we get them right. This book will show us how we can change our thinking about energy and water to be more integrated, with the goal of long-term sustainability, and that, once we adopt this new mindset, many solutions open up that will enable us to manage the water-energy nexus holistically and set us up for a better future.

Water, energy, and civilization go hand in hand. The various multicentury Chinese empires survived as long as they did in part by controlling floods in the Yellow River. This political and imperial power is captured in the word zhi, which has simultaneous meanings "to rule" and "to regulate water." In fact, an article by the Economist in 2009 noted that "the Chinese word for politics (zhengzhi) includes a character that looks like three drops of water next to a platform or dyke. Politics and water control, the Chinese character implies, are intimately linked." Indeed, water and politics go hand in hand for many societies and cultures, not only the Chinese. In the social sciences, there's a hydraulic theory of civilization in which water is the unifying context and justification for many large-scale civilizations, and we can see it playing out in a variety of contexts throughout history. One interpretation of this idea is that the justification for forming large cities in the first place is to manage water, and that large water projects enabled the rise of megacities; cities and water projects go together.

The Romans certainly understood the connections between water and power: they built a vast network of aqueducts throughout their empire, many of which are still standing. The aqueduct of Segovia in Spain was operational after nearly two thousand years up until the twentieth century. And, the magnificent Pont du Gard in southern France proudly stands as a testament to humanity's investment in its water infrastructure.

According to Trevor Hodge, whose book on Roman aqueducts is frequently cited, "The aqueducts went wherever Rome went, an outwards symbol of all that Rome stood for and all that Rome had to offer." In other words, the Romans would build roads, bridges, and water systems as a way of Romanizing new territory. Ultimately, the Roman empire's vast water infrastructure came to be considered one of the ancient world's greatest achievements. And, similar to the Chinese empires, it helped them keep a hold on their power, much like modern politicians of today who erect dams as monuments to themselves.

Other ancient civilizations collaborated to build massive waterworks, like the Khmer empire's vast water network that reached its apex in the thirteenth century. The most famous feature of this water system is the temple known as Angkor Wat. That complex included several water retention ponds, storage systems, distribution channels, and a water temple, which is the main religious shrine that most people associate with the site. And those water temples are not just something that far-flung ancient civilizations built in the middle of jungles: the San Francisco Bay Area also has a modern-day water temple that was erected in 1934 to celebrate the arrival of piped water from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir over 160 miles away in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Just as water and civilization go hand in hand, so too do sustained water scarcity and societal downfall. We've seen this play out in the surprising number of civilizations that have collapsed over history, often with ecological strain as precursors — in particular sustained drought and ensuing stress on water systems. While Angkor Wat and the surrounding water system were strategic assets that helped consolidate power, when the water system failed, Angkor's power went with it. Other research has revealed that three of the five multicentury Chinese dynasties — the Tang (618–907), Yuan (1271–1368), and Ming (i368–1644) — collapsed at times coincident with multidecade drought. That research examined a stalagmite in the Wanxiang Cave, China, at the northern fringes of the monsoons and therefore a useful indicator of strong or weak monsoon activity. The stalagmite that provided the key historical timestamp formed slowly over 1,810 years starting in the year 190 CE, creating a finely resolved year-over-year mineral record that reveals how wet or dry that particular year was. Lining up those mineral records with Chinese written records, which go back thousands of years, showed a remarkable sequence of eras with major societal expansions and collapses or civil unrest. During wet years, when there was enough water for rice cultivation, populations expanded. For example, the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127) doubled in population, going from about 50 million people to more than 100 million in the span of 150 years. During extended periods of weak monsoon activity, dynasties struggled and fell. The coincidence in timing is striking.


Excerpted from Thirst for Power by Michael E. Webber. Copyright © 2016 Michael E. Webber. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

At the University of Texas at Austin, Michael E. Webber is deputy director of the Energy Institute, co-director of the Clean Energy Incubator, Josey Centennial Fellow in Energy Resources, and professor of mechanical engineering. He has developed a popular energy-literacy Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) and created a PBS television special titled Energy at the Movies. He also holds four patents and writes and lectures extensively on energy and other topics. He lives in Austin, TX.

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