1: Do the obvious stuff we’re not doing now
ROOFTOP WATER COLLECTION + DIGITAL MONITORING: Water is heavy. Moving it somewhere to clean it, then using energy to send it back is wasteful. If energy generation and distribution is moving to rooftops, why not water too? Every time it rains, we’re wasting clean water unless we collect and use it.
In Silicon Valley, where I live, many roofs are covered with solar panels, but I almost never see rain-capture systems. By my calculations, the San Francisco Bay Area – a famously drought-and-wildfire-prone region – could be 100 percent self-sufficient simply by capturing rain that falls on roofs during the winter rainy season. Nationally, I calculate the US could generate half the water we need through simple rain capture.
Amazingly, in many American states, it’s illegal to use captured rainwater for one’s home, for reasons ranging from sanitation worries to complex ancient water rights.
Digital technology could speed wise use of rooftop rainwater collection and use. A proper filtration system guarantees healthy drinking water from rooftop collection. As a homeowner I’d prefer to have an expert monitor my filtration system remotely, and dispatch repair people before they’re needed, not after the system breaks down.
FIX THE LEAKS: Water brought to many cities at great cost is wasted by leaky pipes: 20 percent in the average city, 60 percent in Istanbul. In Vietnam, 30 percent of Ho Chi Minh City’s freshwater supply has historically been lost to leaks and other infrastructure problems, but a current IIoT project involving my company, ABB, will reduce non-revenue water to 10 percent by 2020 by digitally monitoring the water network and instituting repairs in near-real time.
MAKE SMARTER USE OF WASTEWATER: In many places, 80 percent of municipal wastewater is discharged untreated. Singapore and Israel, to cite two examples, have learned to reclaim wastewater for drinking water and farming irrigation respectively. In many countries, though, even cleaned wastewater is prohibited for religious or cultural reasons. These restrictions can be honored and bypassed by building separate distribution networks for cleaned wastewater for use in irrigation and landscaping.
2: Rewind the clock. Start by reforesting the Sahara
There are radical “solutions” underway to address the world’s water shortage. These include various forms of “terraforming” involving dumping lots of chemicals into the air or into the oceans. I worry they’ll cause as many problems as they address. A wiser and safer approach, I’d argue, is taking place in Africa, where projects are underway to fight desertification by putting back the trees and triggering a virtuous cycle of regeneration. The Green Belt Movement, founded in 1977 by the late Professor Wangari Maathai, has planted more than 51 million trees in Kenya.
A larger project, the Great Green Wall Initiative, triggered in part by Europe’s migrant crisis and funded by $4 billion pledged by nations and non-governmental organizations at the 2015 Paris climate accord, stretches across 12 African countries and 7,100 km from Djibouti to Dakar. Together with measures to harvest rainwater, it is intended to allow farmers to grow crops all year round and create a new green lung of biodiversity.
“The Great Green Wall is not just a tree planting initiative,” says Jean-Marc Sinnassamy of the Global Environmental Facility. “We are regenerating the whole landscape, tackling poverty as well as environmental degradation. Better ecosystems mean better vegetation cover (including more trees), better soils, better surface and underground water management, better productivity of lands for better livelihoods and income of rural communities.”
These projects reintroduce the concept of a circular natural economy that nature provided long before the growth of human populations disrupted natural cycles. Imagine a replanted forest as a natural conveyer belt - water evaporates as sunlight hits the trees and returns as increased rainfall that irrigates the new forests and the farmland next to those forests. With viable ways to make decent livings, people would be less likely to migrate to distant European cities or be attracted in desperation to extremist organizations.
Digital technology plays an important role here as well. It’s important that local communities have clearly defined ownership stakes in new forests and farmland that will emerge. Satellites and GPS can accomplish that with precision. And the blockchain could create a foolproof chain of custody for the products of these new forests and farms, so local communities would get their fair share of the returns and not be tempted to waste the trees. I envision a new market of blockchain-enabled fair trade forests and farms that would guarantee traceability of, say, sustainable wood. So, a furniture manufacturer could market its products as coming only from sustainable forests, and be able to prove it.
3: Make water out of thin air
Stimulating the virtuous local rainwater cycle is the goal of Waterboxx, by a Dutch company called Groasis that combats desertification, sinking water tables, erosion, hunger and poverty with a doughnut-shaped “plant cocoon” that grows trees in the desert using 90 percent less water than drip irrigation, until now the state of the art in water-sparing agriculture. Waterboxx collects condensation from morning mist, then seeps it to the tree planted in its center. Once multiple trees begin to grow at scale, they create more condensation and more moisture and begin the circular water economy. Groasis has reforestation, food production and ecosystem restoration projects underway on five continents. Its Waterboxx units can be digitally connected, monitored and coordinated remotely.
WaterSeer, a device from a US company, looks like the world’s smallest wind turbine and can pull 42 liters of water a day from the air with no need for an external energy source. It was recently nominated for the Katerva Award, which has been called the Nobel Prize of sustainability. A WaterSeer collection basin is buried 2.5 meters under the ground, with a pipe running from the basin to a small wind turbine that sticks out of the ground. The turbine draws air into the buried basin, where the air condenses into water because the surrounding earth at that depth is cooler than the surface. Networked, monitored, and coordinated, multiple WaterSeers can be linked into modular, self-contained water grids. One such water grid, in Saudi Arabia, harnesses climate change – a very hot country is becoming hotter and more humid as climate change takes hold – to produce 290 liters of water per day for irrigation.
An engineer named Sonam Wangchuk, who grew up in an Indian stretch of the Himalayas bordering Pakistan and China, has invented human-made artificial glaciers that provide more than 9.84 million liters of freshwater runoff to alpine deserts that average just 10 centimeters of rainfall a year. Called stupas, named after local mound-like Tibetan structures, each artificial glacier is made of a 27.5-meter frame of wire and tree branches onto which water from glacial streams is pumped into the freezing air surrounding the frames. The water runs off when the stupas melt in the spring. In addition to the stupas in Tibet, others are being built in a Swiss skiing village to offset the lost runoff from a melting glacier. Wangchuck’s stupas – “Ice Towers in the Desert,” as the Swiss jury called them – won the 2016 Rolex Award for Enterprise.
4. Use the water-energy nexus to help us, not hurt us
Our dire water situation can be worsened or relieved by how we understand and use the water-energy nexus. Simply put, we are using too much water to make energy, and too much energy to deliver water. Threatened Cape Town relies primarily on energy from coal, which requires 87,000 liters of water a month to create power for a single home. In California, where I live, 20 percent of the state’s massive energy production is used to move water from the Sacramento Delta in the north to the desert megalopolis of Los Angeles and Southern California. China moves water 1,500 km, the distance from Orlando to New York City. Even desalination – a promising remedy for water shortages – is energy-hungry. Half the cost of desalination, typically, is the energy required to run desalination plants.
What if we turned the water-energy nexus around, and used excess energy to deliver more water, and excess water to make more energy? What if we used the water-energy nexus as a form of battery-powered time machine?
I just mentioned that half the cost of desalination – widely considered a costly water-shortage solution – is the energy needed to run desalination plants. And with 98 percent of the planet’s water stored in the salty seas, we are surely going to need desalination as global population increases. What if we could cut the cost of those plants by almost 50 percent?
Because renewable energy sources like wind and solar often produce far more energy than their grids can use, it is becoming common for the cost of energy for consumers to fall to zero, or even below zero. Since the beginning of 2018, the cost of energy has been zero or below 194 times in Germany, 76 times in California and 104 times in Australia, according to
Bloomberg. Zero cost days have also occurred in Denmark, France, Switzerland, Texas and New England.
What can be done with excess energy? How can we store it for use at times when the sun isn’t shining or the wind not blowing? Some companies, such as Tesla, are making utility-scale storage batteries, but their cost, according to a Lazard study, is currently 26 cents per kilowatt hour, compared with the typical price of 12.5 cents per kilowatt hour households typically pay for power. Until battery costs come down to become truly competitive, their use will remain limited.
But…what if a desalination plant could monitor energy prices and start up every time the price drops to zero? (The plant’s energy cost wouldn’t literally be zero due to transmission costs, but it would be drastically lower than retail prices.) And unlike ordinary people or businesses that can’t store zero-cost energy without an expensive battery, desalination plants can store cheap energy by filling up their storage reservoirs when desalination is cheapest.
In that way, desalination becomes a battery or time machine in the water-energy nexus. There are others:
Norway’s beautiful fjords are steadily becoming the “ green battery of Europe ” as neighboring European countries send their excess solar and wind power to Norway to pump water uphill to elevated reservoirs. When electricity demand increases and there’s insufficient solar or wind power available, the fjord water is released to flow downhill and create hydroelectric power for European partners transmitted via low-loss high-voltage DC lines (HVDC, I’m proud to say, was an innovation of my company, ABB).
Hoover Dam, the massive engineering marvel on the Colorado River – tall as a 72-story skyscraper – that in large measure enabled the development of the modern American West, is currently being eyed as the world’s largest battery. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti refers to the potential as a “once-in-a-century moment.”
The idea is to build a pump station 30 km downstream from the dam, which would use excess solar and wind energy from California (that zero-cost energy again) to force water back upstream into Lake Mead behind the dam, where it would once again be released to create hydroelectric power when needed.
Even the rotation of the earth – which accounts for time zones – can act as a battery. A large utility in North Carolina is currently building HVDC transmission lines to Texas, because when it’s dark in North Carolina the sun’s still shining in Texas and Texas can send North Carolina low-cost solar energy, not energy generated by burning fossil fuels. Similarly, China is building HVDC transmission lines from its north, where wind and hydropower are plentiful, to the cities of its south.
All of this digitally-enabled time-shifting and terra-battery innovation is the beginning of what I see as a Global Energy Internet, which will traverse nations and continents to carry clean, renewable power from where it’s generated at minimal cost (in money and climate destruction) to where it’s needed most to help create, among other things, low-cost desalinated fresh water.
Will any one of these ideas, in isolation, solve the world’s water problems and put an end to drought-driven migration, poverty-caused extremism or fights for precious resources? Of course not. But taken together – along with countless innovations not mentioned here or soon to come – they will put billions on the road to better lives.
For almost two centuries we have run our world with an Industrial Operating System that is clearly now killing its host. That is, OS 1 is killing us. It’s our mission to harness the power of digital technologies to develop a new Industrial OS that meets the needs of the world’s billions in water, energy, transportation and food. While all four issues are intertwined, water is a good place to start. As the marine biologist Sylvia Earle says, “No water, no life.”