There’s Power in Those Pipes…the Ignored Treasure Hidden in Water

One of the main factors driving market uncertainty this month has been the oil price war being waged by Saudi Arabia and Russia. As these two crude oil heavyweights play a game of price-slash chicken, the rest of the world can do little more than sit by and watch it play out. Still, an alternative exists that can take some of the power away from the fossil-fuel juggernauts, according to the co-authors of this opinion piece. Benjamin Rubin is a public sector consultant in New York. Harvey Rubin is a professor of medicine and computer science at the University of Pennsylvania.

As global markets continued to fall the week March 9, many blamed fears and uncertainty circulating around the spread of coronavirus. Stock markets have plummeted more than 20% and entered bear-market territory. Volatility persists despite efforts by the U.S. Federal Reserve and other central banks to cut interest rates and infuse liquidity to bolster the economy. Many experts predict that the global economy is headed for a downturn. Some say a recession is already here.

While the coronavirus pandemic has indeed played a major role in the onset of the crisis, one of the biggest factors in the record-breaking stock sell-off was the escalating oil-price war being waged between Saudi Arabia and Russia. As these two crude oil heavyweights played a game of price-slash chicken, the rest of the world could do little more than sit by and watch it play out. As the Financial Times noted on March 18, the “prospect of slumping energy sent the U.S. WTI down about 24% to $20 a barrel, the third worst day on record. Brent, the international benchmark, dropped about 9% to a 17-year low of $26 a barrel.”

These events make it clear that dependency on volatile governments and fossil fuels will remain a substantial challenge to sustainable, dependable energy policy. However, what if that wasn’t the case? What if it were possible to take some of the power away from the fossil fuel juggernauts and move it towards a decentralized, apolitical, renewable energy source?

Combating Climate Change

Much like control of global infectious diseases, this requires a global effort. In fact, Goal Seven of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy. The UN notes explicitly, “Energy is central to nearly every major challenge and opportunity the world faces today. Be it for jobs, security, climate change, food production or increasing incomes, access to energy for all is essential. Working towards this goal is especially important as it interlinks with other Sustainable Development Goals.” SDG 13 is: “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.”

Other multi-national governmental organizations have since followed suit in setting ambitious environmental goals. For example, the European Commission passed the “2030 Climate Action Framework” in October of 2014. This landmark legislation binds the European Union to commit 32% of its energy consumption to renewable energy by 2030. Closer to home, California and New York State have laid out ambitious environmental goals with the looming deadline of 2030.

To reach these goals, heavy investments are being made around the world in alternative energy sources such as wind and solar. Buildings are outfitted with solar panels on their roofs and fields are scattered with 400-foot wind turbines that would leave Don Quixote dumbfounded. These commendable strides, however, will not be enough to achieve the 2030 commitments made around the world.

The Netherlands is a world leader in wind turbine energy production. The country hopes that its unprecedentedly large off-shore wind farms can account for 2% to 4% of national energy consumption next year – a long way from 32%. Solar and wind initiatives are imperative for reaching our collective climate goals, but it’s clear that more innovative strategies need to be implemented in order to reach the sustainable goals.

Third Alternative

There is a state of the art, democratized approach to leverage the third type of alternative energy, hydroelectric power. Since its inception, hydroelectric power generation has most often been relegated to enormous, man-made dams. While these massive power centers generate jaw-dropping amounts of energy, they aren’t perfect. New environmental studies show that the adverse effect a man-made dam has on a river or stream’s ecosystem may nearly outweigh the benefit of creating that “green” energy. In addition, as the energy space moves away from centralized, single-source power distribution sites towards more locally generated and distributed power, the current approach to hydroelectric power has to be updated and implemented with new technology and new information and management systems.

The average American uses 80 gallons to 100 gallons of water each day. We are literally flushing this resource down the toilet.

We suggest an approach that is simple: think outside the box; identify where water flows and harness it efficiently. The average American uses 80 gallons to 100 gallons of water each day. We are literally flushing this resource down the toilet. Six verticals where the potential of hydroelectric power generation may be effectively implemented are (1) the water flowing into and out of urban high-rise buildings; (2) wastewater treatment plants; (3) commercial bottling facilities; (4) industrial farming/irrigation; (5) municipalities; 6) mining and drilling industries.

Most of these six areas have been ignored by those in the hydro space because they do not yield the same amount of power and profit as the big dams. Now, however, thanks to advancements in turbine technology, specifically “low flow” efficient turbines, and the new age of localization and democratization of energy production distribution, these areas are, literally, ready to be tapped.

While 2030 is a decade away, the world cannot wait. We must immediately initiate research, development and implementation of innovative hydroelectric power generation in every feasible domain. It is clean, low maintenance, sustainable and applicable in developed countries as well as in low- and middle-income countries. Most significantly, if the world learns to tap the treasure trove of energy and profit hidden in its pipes, that could help insulate us from over-dependence on fossil fuels. Didn’t someone once say that oil and water don’t mix?

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