Food (Water and Energy) for Thought on Earth Day

Sue Hall

Ever wondered how much energy is embedded in the products we consume every day (beyond the energy we use to travel and heat/cool our buildings)? At CNBN we once analyzed the greenhouse gas impacts accumulated over 50 years of living: food can account for 20-30% of our cumulative impact – comparable that from our gasoline or home energy use. Most students certainly recognize that the plastic bottle around the water we drink dominates its GHG footprint — and so seek to reduce these products’ usage on campuses.


[Source: FRCN]

But what about the other hidden energy sinks in the food and water we consume? The energy needed to produce, clean and re-use it?

Snehal Desai, an entrepreneur who’s spent his career bringing clean tech solutions to market, is now dedicated to addressing this next major energy/water/food nexus: the energy needed to deliver clean water — to a world where water is likely to become more scarce and valuable than gasoline.

So do you know where your water consumption’s hidden energy impacts are highest? Or what can be done to reduce them?

Read on… And join Snehal Desai live in conversation at #cleanenergyu’s tweetathon, April 22 to ask how you can best achieve a clean energy future by focusing on the energy/water/food nexus!


Snehal Desai:

With Earth Day on the horizon, there is no better time to talk about one of our greatest, and arguably one of our most undervalued, natural resources: water. What does water have to do with energy? How does food play a role in the trio? Water is required for energy, energy is required for water, and both are required for food. Action in one area can directly impact the other. Voilà – you have just understood the basis of the water-energy-food nexus. Now, onto the complexities…

As someone who works daily on improving technologies for better water and energy management, the statistics are alarming: The world’s population is projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050. The impact of this fact can be put into clearer context when understanding that by 2030, we will need 30 percent more water, 40 percent more energy and 50 percent more food, according to the United Nations. So what do we do to meet the changing needs of nexus? First, let’s explore water use a bit more.water-energy-nexus

Did you know that it takes 10 liters of water to produce one sheet of paper, 91 liters to manufacture one pound of plastic, and 10,855 liters to make a single pair of jeans? Water cools, heats, washes and scrubs. And, it’s a key ingredient in the finished product. With global water demand for manufacturing anticipated to increase by 400 percent from 2000 to 2050, maximizing industry’s efficient use of water is a critical step in the right direction, for both the environment and the bottom line. In order to solve the growing issue of water scarcity, we need to reduce consumption and be more efficient, recycle water where possible, and develop more freshwater sources – and industry plays an important role in these efforts.

Historically, energy has been the single biggest operating cost factor in water treatment. To this end, increasing water scarcity has driven companies to seek out both time-tested and new ways to purify water and promote water reuse that are both cost-effective and offer an improved environmental profile. Aquapolo Ambiental, the largest reuse plant in Latin America and one of the largest operations in the world to employ DOW FILMTEC™ ECO Reverse Osmosis (RO) Elements, helps a local São Paulo petrochemical plant avoid using potable water needed by the community. Dow provides Aquapolo with a more sustainable and cost-effective solution through the incorporation of FILMTEC™ ECO membranes in the plant, which have replaced the original membranes. These high-efficiency, low-energy membranes are just one example of Dow’s endeavor to deliver effective water treatment technology with an improved energy profile. Aquapolo has been operating the new train with these membranes achieving twice the salinity reduction at 50 percent of the historical energy consumption thus giving “more for less.”

Reducing water consumption and recycling water where possible is the first step, but when that is not enough, desalination is now a viable, more economically feasible option thanks to advanced water treatment technologies. As advancing technology continues to drive costs down and freshwater continues to grow scarcer and more expensive, more cities are looking to seawater conversion as a way to meet this vital demand.

Energy is also one of the major contributors to the cost of desalinated water. Over the last 40 years, however, advances in membrane chemistry, module design, higher efficiency pumps, higher efficiency energy recovery devices and innovative system designs has significantly increased the energy efficiency of membrane desalination. In fact, RO elements have come a long way, and desalination today costs only half of what it did 10 to 15 years ago. That said, Dow Water & Process Solutions will provide RO membranes for the Carlsbad Desalination Project in California –the Western Hemisphere’s largest seawater desalination plant –in collaboration with Poseidon Water, IDE Technologies, Kiewit Shea Desalination and Protec Arisawa. The historic Carlsbad Desalination Project will bring the largest, most technologically advanced and energy-efficient seawater desalination plant in the West to San Diego County. Scheduled to be completed and operational late 2015, the plant will provide water for nearly 112,000 households in San Diego County, or over 300,000 people.

Beyond reducing their own environmental impact, businesses are in the unique position of being able to help customers and society become more sustainable. Science, together with strong water stewardship, can help preserve and restore the world’s water supply and ensure access to clean water for billions. Not only do sustainable practices make ecological sense, but they make good business sense. As we move toward a circular economy based on virtually no waste, with raw materials continually recycled and reused, the crucial role of water is top of mind for corporate leaders across the globe. Dow is not an exception, which is why we’ve launched our new 2025 Sustainability Goals, so stay tuned on this front!

Water is essential to all of our lives. But we don’t have to choose between clean water, energy resources or bountiful food. By adopting a reuse, recycle, renew mindset, companies can help take significant steps toward a circular economy without breaking the bank. It’s time to tackle this challenge head-on and meet the emerging needs of the nexus together.

-Snehal Desai, Global Business Director, Dow Water & Process Solutions.

So how much of your campaigning energy is focused on the “hidden” embedded energy impacts contained in the water you use? In the other products you use? And what can you do to reduce them?

Join Snehal (@SneDesai) to ask him by posting your questions to #cleanenergyu and join him and other leaders live in conversation at 1 ET 4/22 – to drive towards a deeper #cleanenergyu future !


Sue Hall
CEO, Climate Neutral Business Network