Figuring Out Where Water Meets Watts in Texas

A model of the impacts of energy on water and air quality could help states go green

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Dave Allen: An important thing to recognize is that it’s not just energy and water, but it’s energy and water and air. It’s energy and water and air and climate.

Laurie Howell: For mechanical engineer Michael Webber and chemical engineer Dave Allen, the water energy nexus is just a starting point.

Michael Webber: It’s energy, water; energy, water, carbon; energy, water, carbon, pollutants, nitrogen; energy, water, carbon, pollutants, nitrogen, soil, and then we find tensions between these things where what we do that might be good for water is bad for air quality and vice versa.

Laurie Howell: How can we know what’s best for now, let alone 10, 20, 30 years from now? Webber and Allen hope to help us with their unusual if not groundbreaking approach.

Dave Allen: We have experts in water usage for electricity generation, we have experts in air quality implications of energy, and then we have experts in how power is dispatched within an existing grid, how it’s assigned to one particular power plant or another.

Michael Webber: And we can look river by river and look at the water that might be available in that river a particular month, and what power plants are on that river, and then look at the air quality forecasts that Dave just mentioned and say, Okay, can we redispatch to this river to improve the air quality situation—do we have the water available?

Laurie Howell: Webber and Allen are creating computer models that essentially take all the data about an area’s water and energy, both supply and demand, and then weigh it against priorities, such as air quality—and challenges, such as drought. They’re starting with the state of Texas and the city of Austin. 

Dave Allen: So, what we’re trying to do is link together all this information, provide it to the decision makers and do it so that it helps them make their daily decisions, their seasonal decisions, and then their multidecade decisions about where to put new power generation.

Michael Webber: Right now, our dispatching is done based on price. Whatever power plant is cheapest generally is the one that gets turned on and dispatched. So, if we can incorporate these air quality or water impacts into a price, then the decision making is still pretty simple—which one’s cheapest. But you have new things that are calculated in that cost. So, that’s one of the driving hypotheses of this research, is that if we can analyze this appropriately and condense it to a dollar sign, then this will be achieved the right way.

Laurie Howell: So just what kinds of questions could their models answer? One of the graduate students on the research, Ashlynn Stillwell, is working on scenarios that involve mainly water and electricity.

Ashlynn Stillwell: What if the legislature would decide that we really need to switch to renewable energy? What does that look like for water consumption, for power? Or, what if the legislature really pushes water conservation? When we save water, we save energy so what does that look like for electricity generation and also greenhouse gas emissions and things like that. 

Laurie Howell: One of the major factors Allen and Webber will ultimately have to figure into their models is climate change. For example, scientists are predicting climate change will create more weather extremes, which means more droughts and more floods. And that will change the water supply.

Michael Webber: So you have more water abundance in some places and locations and times, and more water scarcity in some locations and times, and figuring out how that affects water supply and how that then affects energy supply is an important part of what we’re trying to go through.

Daryl Slusher: As far as our greenhouse gas emissions, the science is absolutely critical to that.

Laurie Howell: Daryl Slusher leads environmental affairs at Austin Water.

Daryl Slusher: We really rely on science. I mean, we’re not going to base our—politics enters into pretty much everything and government. I mean, we’re a public entity and we listen to what the public has to say but, fundamentally, we have to factor science into our decisions as a water utility and I think Austin Energy would probably tell you the same thing.

Laurie Howell: And in fact, Austin Energy did. But while Webber and Allen work with Austin’s utilities and its city leaders, they’re quick to point out the limits of their research. 

Dave Allen: In the end, who’s going to make the formula? We, as a society, will have to decide that. It’s not going to be an engineer programming in the backroom. We’re going to have to get input from—and, as a society, decide how much do we value the air quality impacts and photochemical smog versus global warming emissions versus water use. We have to, as a society, decide what those trade-offs will be. 

Michael Webber: So, this is a time of transition and it does make it exciting, because that means our research can be informative for the policymaking process as society grapples with these issues. So, I see it as something rapidly changing right now and it is exciting. There’s a lot of popular attention and policy attention to these issues. Hopefully we can figure it out.

Laurie Howell: In Austin, Texas, I’m Laurie Howell.

To Probe Further

Check out the rest of the special report: Water vs Energy.