Last week, I talked about my initial impressions of the first annual SXSW Eco in Austin, TX. While I sat in on a number of interesting discussions and presentations about the future of the green movement and the need for energy efficiency and sustainable business practices, overall there was very little discussion on the relationship between water resource management and energy efficiency and sustainability.
At my last stop on the first day of the conference—the dual presentation “Texas and China: Non-Obvious Energy and Environmental Bedfellows”—water was once again an afterthought. To be fair, the purpose of the presentation was to highlight how Texas and China have similar energy landscapes and similar energy solutions with an emphasis on both regions having the same “special skill sets, challenges, and opportunities” to make transition to “a cleaner, green energy system.” But with water so closely intertwined with energy generation—particularly in drought-stricken Texas and water-challenged China—the lack of discussion about the impact water resources can have on that “cleaner, green energy system” seemed like a major oversight.
The presentation was broken into two parts: the first focused on Texas energy generation and was led by Michael E. Webber (Assistant professor for the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas). Entitled “Energy in Texas: Dirty Polluter and Clean Energy Leader,” Webber established how Texas and China mirror each other in terms of energy generation and demand, being both the largest energy users among their peers, and the biggest generations of both GHGs and renewable energy.
“There are billions of people who want to consume energy the way we do,” explained Webber, who went on to note that, in Texas, more than half of energy used is for industrial processes (energy, chemical, manufacturing). “We are a manufacturing state,” said Webber. “We are the China of the United States—we are its dirty manufacturer."
Trevor Houser, a partner with the Rhodium Group, took up the cause for China with his presentation, “Texas and China—Unlikely Energy Bedfellows.” Houser focused specifically on how Chinese energy demand will impact our own energy use. With a 15% non-fossil target by 2020, it possible that China will add 50% to all of its renewable energy and nuclear generation arsenal in the next decade; including the additional of 320 GW of nuclear power. But, according to Houser, even if China gets halfway, their actions will have a global impact on prices and products, because “you can’t get that scale of capacity without getting market dominance.”
China will also dominate in coal generation, according to Houser, who predicts that the country will need “a billion tons of coal” to continue on its current course of industrial and infrastructure expansion. This could mean that China’s actions may simultaneously drive a drop in the price of clean tech, while also triggering an increase in the price of dirty power.
“China will do more to change US emissions in the next three years” than politics said Houser.
But what about water? We all know about the precarious nature of Texas’s current drought, and we’ve discussed the challenge of managing water resources in China—so in what ways do the regions mimic each other? And what lessons, if any, can be gleaned from the way China or Texas is mitigating the impact of water demand and water shortages?
For Texas, the answer is clear—current drought conditions have severely impacted power production, particularly for biofuels and oil shale. In fact, according to the presenters, if water supply continues to diminish a pace, Texas could see several large power plants shut down next year. But the state’s investment in a renewable energy infrastructure may be its saving grace. With less water-intensive options like wind (and solar) already in place, in the future the state may be able to mobilize its resources in response to water supply.
In China, it’s a bit more complicated. Increased urbanization has put undue pressure on the nation’s mega-cities, who are facing both clean water issues and infrastructure challenges. China is also conducting the “largest water transfer project in the world,” with a pipeline that moves dwarfs the California aqueduct. Nevertheless, according to the presenters, China’s biggest concern is water contamination, not water’s energy footprint.
So what do you think? Are the similarities between Texas and China strong enough to draw comparisons about energy and water use? Is there anything to be learned from the previous successes (and looming disasters) experienced by each region? And can China—or Texas for that matter—continue on this course of expansion and urban mobilization without accounting for the water/energy nexus?