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WATER AND POWER RANT leading to “THE LOCALIST SOLUTION” - 1_bibliophiliac



We need to adopt less resource and capital intensive methods of producing electricity,
and we need for the sources of production to be physically closer to the demand for
electricity. We have to view water as a precious, vital and infinitely recyclable resource
and treat it accordingly. And we need to live in buildings which use less energy overall,
especially when nobody is home.

Water and power are inextricably linked, and have been so for millennia.
Early civilizations arose as a result of harnessing available water
resources: Egypt harnessed the Nile, The Sumerians harnessed the
Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Dravidian/Harappan civilization harnessed
the Indus, and so on. Water was the basis for large-scale agriculture and
rivers, lakes and seas were arteries for transport and trade. Rivers and
seas remain important arteries of trade, but, in the last four centuries, water
has come to be used in ways of which the ancients could not even
dream. Water wheels have been in use for thousands of years, but it
wasn't until the beginning of “the industrial revolution” in the 18th century that
their potential finally began to be realized. Instead of just irrigating fields or
grinding grain, water wheels drove complex machinery which produced
everything from cloth to cannons.

The steam engine saw water harnessed in a completely different way, and
with an even wider variety of applications. Now one no longer had to have
immediate access to a source of water – one could “take the river with you,” in a
condensation tank. As revolutionary as it was at the time, 200 years
ago, one would think that since the advent of automobiles and
electricity and such that we have moved past the age of steam, but
that assumption would be incorrect. With a few minor efficiency
increases, the process of producing electricity today is nearly
identical to that of 120 years ago, and it starts with heat being
transferred from a source into water to produce steam. Whether it is
coal, oil, gas, nuclear or even solar thermal, the process is
basically the same, and the process involves a whole lot of water.
First water is heated... a lot... until it becomes superheated steam,
where the steam ranges in temperature between 400 and 1000 degrees F.
The pressure from the steam turns a turbine, which either spins
magnets around coils, or coils around magnets. The end result is
electricity. Essentially what this amounts to is an old fashioned
steam engine hooked up to some magnets, and the technology dates back
to the 19th century.

Conventional power plants require 26 gallons of water for each kilowatt hour
produced. The average American household uses 30 kilowatt hours per day...
but that ain't the half of it. 52% of all electricity “produced” in the US is
“wasted” between the place where it is “produced” and the
user for whom it was “produced.” (Energy cannot actually be
created or destroyed, but it can be converted). This “waste” or
“loss” is due to resistance, flux and “drain” in transmission
lines. The longer the distance from the power plant to the user, the
more electricity is converted to heat or flux. This means that a
power plant has to produce at least twice as much electricity as is
demanded by the end users, so 26 gallons becomes 52 gallons per
kilowatt hour, per household, per day. That is 1560 gallons of
water per household per day for electricity

Nuclear reactors use even more water
per user (because some is used for steam, and some is used for
cooling – if certain parts of a nuclear reactor get too hot the end

result is what is known as a “catastrophic cascade” - which, if
unchecked, terminates in either a major hydrogen fire followed by
widespread radioactive contamination [like the Fukushima Daiichi
reactor after the tsunami], a core meltdown [like Chernobyl], or the
reactor exploding [think Hiroshima, 1945]. As Steve Martin said in
the classic 3 Mile Island SNL sketch, “You can never have too much
water in a nuclear reactor.”). Most solar thermal arrays also use
water, and lots of it.

While over half of this water is
eventually returned to reservoirs and rivers, a significant minority
is lost to evaporation or is rendered unfit for use due to
contamination. The contaminated water then has to be either
extensively treated or isolated and stored for long periods of time,
rendering it vitally and functionally useless and essentially
removing it from the hydrologic cycle for months, years or decades.

42% of all “processed” water
(water that humans have diverted for their own uses) is used to
produce electricity
, and that percentage is rising with the
global demand for electricity (currently increasing at a 4% annual
rate, mostly due to India's 8% annual increase in demand and China's
11%). This is more water than is used for irrigation in commercial
farming, and WAY more than is used by businesses or residences for
other purposes. Contemporary power production represents the
single greatest use of water by humans in our entire history
This intense use of massive volumes of water by utilities is why
energy companies often administer rivers, canals, lakes and
reservoirs – they require more water than any other group of
entities or individuals due to their inefficient and archaic methods
of production and distribution.

And get this... 12% of all the electric
energy consumed... is used to move water from one place to another.
68% of all electricity is used in buildings, mostly for heating and

cooling, but also to move potable water in, and waste and storm water
out. This is completely nuts. Because of the water-intensive way we
produce electricity, nearly 1/8 of our electric usage addresses an
artificial “water problem” created by... the water-intensive way
we produce electricity! This is what my old friend George Wright
would call “a stupid cycle.” It is a positive feedback loop with
some very negative results.

Conventional power plants are very
capital intensive, and require a lot of resources, labor, equipment
and maintenance to remain useful. They are also relatively
inefficient, mostly due to the number of energy conversions involved
to power a conventional dynamo.

No energy conversion is 100% efficient
– energy is always lost, usually to “waste” heat. Each time
energy is converted from one form to another force is lost. In
traditional conventional electric production, fuel is converted
through combustion to heat, which is transferred to water where
another conversion happens (a state change from liquid to gas). The
energy from the expanding gas is then converted into mechanical
energy to turn a turbine, and, finally, that energy is converted into
electricity. The maximum theoretical efficiency of a combustion
engine, if one assumes that the process is adiabatic and reversible,
is 48% (the process is neither entirely adiabatic nor is it
reversible, but it makes the math easier and yields roughly the same
result). Actual efficiencies are always lower than 48%. According to
the EIA, 3.1 btus of coal, oil or gas are required to produce 1 Btu
of electricity, so the actual efficiency of the contemporary version
of traditional electric production is about 30%... which is quite
good, considering the fact that it starts with combustion and
involves four different energy conversions. Compare that to a car,
where combustion is converted directly into mechanical energy: the
average car today is about 36% efficient, meaning that for every ten
gallons of fuel consumed, 3.6 of those gallons propel the car and
only 6.4 of those gallons are wasted to heat. Over the past 120 years
combustion engines overall have become about 30% more efficient. The

fewer the energy conversions, the better; the more local the fuel,
the better. What would be ideal would be on-site fuel sources
requiring only one energy conversion into electricity (egs:
photovoltaics, small solar concentrator systems, wind turbines,
micro-hydro). What would be really cool would be on-site generation
systems which required little to no water.

Of the electricity produced, as
previously stated, less than half actually reaches the end user,
making the production and distribution process less than 15%
efficient under the best possible circumstances. The hotter it gets
outside, the more electricity is lost to resistance in transmission,
so in the summer the production and distribution process can be much
less efficient. Which is unfortunate, because that is also the time
when there is the greatest demand for electricity, due to air
conditioning: according to the EIA residential electric demand jumps
from its average of 98 billion kwh to approximately 150 billion kwh
in July and August, with commercial rising from 102 to 133 billion
kwh in the same months (figures are averages derived from 2000-2010
annual reports of usage by category). While there is less seasonal
variation in electric demand for industrial users, they account for
less than a quarter of the overall demand, with residences accounting
for 62% of total demand. This is way up: a century ago the
relationship was reversed. It is also a sign of profligacy: in
industrial and commercial spaces, electricity is used to produce
products and services; in residential spaces it is used to maintain a
comfortable environment for the inhabitants, even for inhabitants who
are absent. The average residential electric consumer spends less
than half of their time at home, but their absence only reduces
electric consumption by about 30% (EIA again). So, here is what this
means: over 40% of electricity is produced in the US to meet the
“demands” of residential housing units which are temporarily
. A lot of this demand is HVAC systems, which are
typically switched on whether or not anyone is home.

We currently have “power shortages”
and “water shortages,” but both are artificial, created by the
wasteful and inefficient ways we obtain, distribute and use both of

these resources.

This isn't scarcity, it is stupidity,
and, while there are many possible solutions, this one is mine. I
call it “The Localist Solution.”

1. Produce energy closer to where
it is consumed
. Making the electric grid “smarter” isn't
going to solve the problem. The electric grid itself IS the problem:
produce and consume electricity locally, using methods which are
much less water intensive. Nobody wants to live next to a coal
plant: they stink and they pollute the air and water. The same goes
for most types of conventional electric power plants. So long as
these are the primary methods of production, long transmission
lines, and wasted water and power, will remain. Photovoltaics in
sunny places, wind turbines in windy places, and newer and more
efficient gas and bio-fuel plants closer to where folks live and
work are the solution. Don't use electricity for frivolous or
unnecessary purposes. Water isn't just some clear liquid that comes
out of a tap, it is a precious resource, essential for life, a truly
wonderful and amazing substance, and is about 4/5 of the mass of
your body. Treat it with respect and don't squander it.

2. Use methods of electric
production that require much less water. Design buildings that use
less water, where water is re-purposed and recycled instead of
shunted down a drain. Design buildings that require less energy to
maintain comfortable temperatures.
Capture as much water locally
as possible, and use it wisely and efficiently. Retrofit existing
buildings to conserve water and electricity. Use daylight, and
employ more efficient artificial lighting. Use locally available
natural resources as much as possible to meet needs. The farther
something travels to its destination, the more energy it takes to
deliver it, and, as I've stated, more energy means a whole lot of

wasted water.


Blue Revolution: Unmaking America's Water Crisis
Cynthia Barnett (2011), Beacon Press, Boston; ISBN: 978-0-8070-0328-2.

International Energy Agency@

US Energy Information Administration@

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1 comment or Leave a comment
1_bibliophiliac From: 1_bibliophiliac Date: March 9th, 2013 02:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
I used Kingsoft (the free version) on an Android mobile platform, then converted to HTML without making any further changes and just pasted it into the LJ editor, which explains the narrow margins, the funky paragraphs and the ginormous header. I'm pretty impressed it worked at all, but will eventually return to improve its aesthetics at some future date. In the mean time, enjoy!

Edited at 2013-03-09 02:46 pm (UTC)
1 comment or Leave a comment