Water Resources Research Act Program

Details for Project ID 2016MA454B

Understanding the interaction of renewable energy generation and desalination within the water-energy system

Institute: Massachuseits
Year Established: 2016 Start Date: 2016-06-01 End Date: 2016-08-15
Total Federal Funds: $5,021 Total Non-Federal Funds: $11,601

Principal Investigators: Matthew Lackner

Abstract: The goal of this project is to develop new and innovative research focused on the coupled, interdependent behavior of renewable energy generation and water desalination through system modeling and resource analysis. Water and energy systems are inextricably linked; energy is used to create and move water, and water is used in energy production. The cooling systems of thermal power plants are the largest withdrawer of water in the U.S. Energy is also used in the production and transportation of water. Sea water desalination is growing rapidly in the U.S. and around the world. Desalination requires significant energy input, resulting in a feedback loop as the electricity used to power the desalination facility consumes fresh water for cooling, thereby further stressing fresh water supplies and increasing the need for desalination. Renewable energy (RE) generation, such as wind and solar energy, has the potential to decouple water and energy, and instead can bring about a virtuous feedback cycle that positively impacts water supplies. As RE penetration levels increase, fossil and nuclear power sources are potentially displaced, resulting in less fresh water cooling demands, increased water supplies, lower desalination demand, and thus a further decrease in energy demand. Our project will begin to investigate this interplay between RE generation, desalination, and the water-energy system. The research will have two major thrusts. 1 - System modelling of the water-energy system using a range of RE generation and desalination scenarios. We will use a case study approach, and focus on several regions in the U.S. We will consider conservative (“business as usual”) and more aggressive RE generation scenarios. We will model the displaced thermal energy under various sources, allowing us to calculate the relative fresh water saved under each scenario. In the case of New England, in which desalination is unlikely, the analysis ceases at this step. This analysis will result in estimates of the marginal increase in fresh water supply under various RE generation scenarios. This analysis is unique in its consideration of the growth in desalination and the coupling between desalination an energy demands. The analysis can also be used to estimate other environmental benefits from reduced carbon emissions and reduced environmental impacts from water heating. 2 - Resource correlation of renewable energy sources, water supply, and water utilization. Inter-annual variability is important when projecting RE generation from sources such as wind and solar, mean wind speeds and solar irradiance can vary year to year and have multi-year cycles. The amount of rainfall, water supply, and water use also has inter-annual variability. When considering the interplay between RE generation, desalination, and the water-energy system, this correlation between these factors at the time scale of years is important to consider. We will analyze historical data and determine correlations between renewable energy sources, water supply, and water utilization at a variety of locations across the U.S., enabling us to draw conclusions about the impact of RE generation on water supplies and desalination.