Thursday, July 31, 2014

Climate change, desalination, and astronaut water

As Eli points out, California has a water crisis, and much of the rest of the country needs to be much more water efficient. Water efficiency is the obvious place to start but then the next-step question comes up.

While plenty of people don't live near the ocean, lots do. Oceanside areas with large populations are going to have wastewater treatment plants (in developed countries, anyway).  These places therefore have two potential sources of new water supply:  ocean desalination or potable reuse of recycled wastewater.

Potable reuse of wastewater is nothing new. Almost any city drawing water from a river which has another city upstream is already doing it; the question is can we do it without lying to ourselves. In the case of astronauts and the International Space Station, they can do it outright, but the rest of us have to catch up.

Or not. Ocean desal actually uses the same technologies that potable reuse requires, either distillation or more commonly through reverse osmosis. The difference is that ocean water has a lot more stuff in it (mainly salt) than wastewater which already has to go through some purification before it reaches your reverse-osmosis system. That means a lot more energy and cost is involved in ocean desalination than potable reuse, so we've got a climate change issue.

The other climate change issue is that the lack of water currently stops a lot of unwise sprawl development, but ocean desal could change that, or maybe even mandate it - a very expensive desal system could be built on the expectation that there will be a lot more development to pay for it. I suppose there's some sprawl risk from potable reuse as well, but because it functions best in an existing populated area, starting at the wastewater treatment plan and then spreading from there, the risk is lower.

Many other factors involved of course, but these are the main climate issues. All but one of the factors weigh in favor of potable reuse. The one factor favoring ocean desal is psychology and political acceptance. People hesitate to drink this water, and that hesitation killed an earlier potable reuse project in San Diego (p. 17).

I view desal and portable reuse as being in a race. Money is limited so communities are going to prioritize. As much as I can I've supported potable reuse and opposed desal.

First step for potable reuse is Indirect Potable Reuse, achieving psychological acceptance by making the treated water sit somewhere for a while before reuse, either in a reservoir or underground. It's good but maximum flexibility and less cost require Direct Potable Reuse, shunting the water to your drinking water plants.

At my water district we've set up a reverse osmosis system. Currently it's just to improve the quality of non-potable recycled water which will help with certain types of uses, but the goal is potable, if we can get public acceptance.

Note:  stumbled across this - Los Angeles actually constructed an indirect potable reuse plant in the 1930s, but shut it down when they acquired Colorado River water. Back to the future, like with electric cars.

Also, desalination sometimes refers to desal of brackish water, usually groundwater. This water is much less salty than ocean water so a lot of the energy concerns are reduced with brackish desal. But brackish water and even potable reuse require a fair amount of energy, just nowhere near as much as ocean desal.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Meeting Michelle Obama

Maybe I should clarify it as a very brief "meeting" with Michelle Obama - a handshake, someone told her my first name, she thanked us for what the Water District is doing, we posed for a picture, and then the Water District CEO and I were out the White House door. Interesting and fun experience though. I was honored to represent the Water District and very happy that the District's work has received this recognition.

I also got to wonder beforehand how one addresses the First Lady (as best I could tell in my brief phone googling, it's "Mrs. Obama"). I probably didn't use that knowledge - I have no recollection of what I said to her other than "thank you", hopefully whatever else I said wasn't too incoherent. She had a very warm and sincere demeanor about her though, both in a ten minute speech she gave beforehand about the importance of drinking water and in how she looked at you in the eye and smiled as we had the photo-op.

I've met just a handful of famous people very briefly - Al Gore, John Edwards before he imploded, a few senators - and she was the warmest of them. Interesting in that my remote impression of Barack is that he's not so warm.

OTOH, there are parts of Michelle's job that can't be that controversial, so maybe it's not that hard to be enthusiastic. Maybe she has a leg up expressing enthusiasm with us water people, and in being enthusiastic 20 minutes later when she did a water-focused event with kids out on the White House lawn.

As for why we were there, she's promoting the "Drink Up" campaign to get Americans to drink more water. The tricky part of the campaign is they're focusing solely on the positive message - they're not denigrating other drinks like soda and they're not distinguishing between bottled and tap water. OTOH, this approach lets them get the support of soda and bottled water companies. We were invited because we have joined the effort to encourage water consumption, and our voters taxed themselves two years ago in small part to fund hydration stations in schools so kids can easily refill water bottles. A very nice benefit for us was having the First Lady specifically mention "Santa Clara Valley Water District" and our work in a speech that's now on the White House website. She also made a valid point during her speech, that if we invested the same marketing effort for healthy food that we've been doing for decades for junk food, then we can really make progress.

Two other points - if you're ever invited for that photo-op, apparently it's very bad to try to use your own phone camera. It was fine to do so when she's making her speech, but 10 minutes later I was told extremely urgently to put the phone away when she was doing the photo-ops with others. Now you know.

The other funny thing was that after everything was done outside on the White House lawn, we couldn't figure out how to leave. I suggested the two of us make a run for the fences and jump them, but that didn't happen. Instead we milled around with everyone else until someone who knew what they were doing started to go, and we followed the herd.

I'm told the photos will take a while before release, but in the meantime we have her speech:

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Stigma for fossil fuel companies, the reverse for the churches that dump them

Given that the Water District established a climate divestment policy last year following my memo urging it to happen, I'm gratified and very happy to see the faith community do much the same. We were the first water district in the country to enact climate divestment, and it's spreading and growing. The only way it works is by communities working together.

World Council of Churches, Unitarian Universalists, United Church of Christ, and many smaller/regional church denominations and affiliated organizations have established climate divestment policies. Others are percolating - the Methodists are studying their investment policy, the Presbyterians are first going to try to persuade the companies to give up their core business model (good luck with that!)* and then we'll see them and others consider this issue.

People involved in climate divestment and had also been involved in South Africa divestment a generation ago say that climate divestment is moving faster. An Oxford study backs that up (p. 11).

The same study acknowledges limited direct financial impacts of divestment except for coal industry, but then focuses on the stigma issue:

As with individuals, a stigma can produce negative consequences for an organisation. For example, firms heavily criticised in the media suffer from a bad image that scares away suppliers, subcontractors, potential employees, and customers. Governments and politicians prefer to engage with ‘clean’ firms to prevent adverse spill-overs that could taint their reputation  or jeopardise their re-election. Shareholders can demand changes in management or the composition of the board of directors of stigmatised companies. Stigmatised firms may be barred from competing for public tenders, acquiring licences or property rights for business expansion, or be weakened in negotiations with suppliers. Negative consequences of stigma also include cancellation of multibillion-dollar contracts or mergers/ acquisitions. Stigma attached to merely one small area of a large company may threaten sales across the board.
(p. 14, citations removed)

The stigmatization from divestment will have financial consequences. These companies will have to pay more for employees and for other businesses to work with them. Companies with a toe-hold in the fossil fuel sector will find it better for them to get out.

Most important is that stigmatized industries will find it tougher to manipulate the political sector. That's one reason why they disguise their funding, but the disguise is imperfect, and the difficulty gets worse with the stigma.

Two other points. The study acknowledges political restrictions resulting from the climate divestment effort could destroy the perceived value of reserves that end up staying in the ground. When the carbon bubble pops is hard to predict, but any downward pressure increases the possibility of it happening soon.

Second, when companies divested from South Africa they weren't required to physically blow up the businesses they left behind - they sold them. The argument that it had no financial impact was around then, but we see what happened in the end.

*I think there is a business case that fossil fuel companies should 1. stop wasting money exploring for new reserves, 2. sell the reserves they're not going to be allowed to develop before the carbon bubble bursts, 3. play out the remaining and cheapest reserves and 4. either distribute the profits and wind down their companies, or invest in another business model. Not likely to happen, though.

I'm ignoring the complications of when natural gas can substitute for coal. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Founder Effect

  • George Washington 
  • Nelson Mandela 
  • Nouri al Maliki
  • Hamid Karzai

Here following the conclusion of the Fourth of July weekend, I think we can see how crucial it is to have competent and ethical leaders at early stages of a country's history.

See that list above. The American Founding Fathers were not gods - John Adams made that clear in his later years - but truly rotten apples like Aaron Burr were the exception. And while South African democracy is somewhat rocky, it's still a democracy over 20 years later, and Mandela's leadership helped make that happen.

America had rocky initial years like South Africa, ultimately culminating in the Civil War to free the slaves and preserve the Union. Good initial leadership is no guarantee of stability, but it sure helps.

Contrast our experiences to Iraq's and Afghanistan's. While Maliki wasn't the first Iraqi leader after Saddam, he's been the most crucial and most unfortunate one, and Karzai is hardly better.

We Americans are fortunate in our Founder Effect, and can work hard to have good leadership still. Hopefully the same will happen in Iraq and Afghanistan.