The Water Grid and Water Markets: Innovative Ideas From Going Green West

Published on September 24th, 2009 | by

The Going Green West Conference from Always On last week in Sausalito, California had hundreds of venture capitalists and CEOs from around the country talking cleantech. One panel discussion, The Water Grid & Water Markets, brought together four water industry players talked about everything from the feasibility and necessity of a water grid to future water market development.

Photo Credit: D Sharon PruittWater issues will require a variety of approaches
Water issues will require a variety of approaches

Organized and moderated by Laura Shenkar of the Artemis Project, a boutique consulting firm for water management and advanced water technology companies, the panel included John Coburn, Managing Director XPV Capital, Jerry Rowe VP Operations Schlumberger Water Services, Andrew Clark- Director of Corporate Strategy, IBM, and G.G. Pique, CEO Energy Recovery, Inc.

Shenkar began with an overview of the water market and the pressing water situation, culminating with a wise warning: “Long before the price of water rights itself you will be reminded of its value when it runs out.”

The discussion began around the growing water crisis and what to do about it. So what answers should we be looking at? According to this panel: 1) Efficiency, 2) Smart Grids, and 3) Storage.

Efficiency

According to the panel, in 1980 the U.S. lost about 10% of its water through infrastructure- by 2020 that will be up to around 40%. In what other industry can this be considered efficient? Where else can you toss 10-40% of your product out the back door and expect to run a good business?

G.G. Pique put the possibilities of desalination into perspective, referencing that American icon of clean energy, the Prius. The Prius has 37% energy efficiency, he said, while Energy Recovery (his company) is doing 97% efficiency in desalination. In fact, their website says that they are saving customers over 500 MegaWatts in energy and helping to produce over 5.2 Million cubic meters of fresh water everyday.

Pique went on to cite another alarming statistic: “the Hoover Dam is only at 40% capacity and Southern California got just 4 inches of rain last winter- we are sort of in denial in this country. Right now, 90% of our business is overseas. It’s happening outside of the US- 95% of our revenue is from outside this country. The only place in the world where desalination is subsidized is California and it’s the only place in the world where it’s not happening.”

Storage

Jerry Rowe, VP Operations Schlumberger Water Services dug into options around water storage in the American West: He talked about how in water storage, ground water has a huge role- the subsurface itself can be used as a storage space. According to Rowe, subsurface water storage is 1/5 to 1/10 the cost of surface storage. It is also safer with no risk of terrorist attacks or other issues.

“We are obviously living in a time of political dysfunction- we have an old problem: the Bureau of Reclamation. As long as [water] remains cheap there is no incentive to [manage] it. The U.S. will need to form some sort of water consortium, right now information and management is fragmented.”

Smart Grids

Andrew Clark- Director of Corporate Strategy at IBM talked about their ambitious, island-wide smart-grid project in Malta.

“Malta asked us to build a smart grid for their electrical, natural gas and water services from scratch.”

The project involves deploying 250,000 new meters around the island. Malta is roughly the size of Sacramento and has about 400,000 people, and this project will be one of the first to see how a large community responds to a smart-grid setup.

Moving Forward

The panel concluded by looking at approaches to water management around the world: Singapore has an ambitious and aggressive water policy that deals with it as a security issue. Countries like UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria are looking at a combination of desal+reuse+aquifer storage for their coming water needs, and for many countries it quickly becomes a security issue.

The panel also compared the development of water management to the Internet- neither was developed with a centralized authority, which is both part of the problem and part of the charm. “Once you have a comprehensive water policy to some extent the VC opportunity will be gone,” said Shenklar.

The panel concluded with two thoughts to whet the mental appetite for innovation:

  • In the U.S. we currently reuse about 1-2% of our water- that will need to go up to something over 50% reuse in the near future.
  • In California, you save more energy by saving water than by saving energy directly.

With truths and challenges like those, expect these companies and consultants to take on a much larger role in resource management over the coming decades- and expect innovative solutions across the board to wash ashore and change the way you think about water.


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