Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The softer side of hydro

Note: This was my first post on The Berkeley Blog (cross-post from the BERC Blog).

Natel Energy
What I understand so far is that we are about to visit a company that develops renewable-energy technology. On the way to an old Navy air station in Alameda, I ask my fellow passengers, “So, what do these guys do, again?” Someone mentions wind; I have assumed solar, but I am a bit taken aback when I enter the presentation room.

I am on a group tour at Natel Energy with ERG’s Energy and Society course. The person at the front asks us to share what we are interested in. People mention energy, engineering and policy. Feeling a bit like an outsider in the room, I am telling her, “I work with water and development…” when I glance up at the slideshow presentation, which says “EcoSmartHydro™.” I do a double take, thinking “Hydro? That’s got to mean something else.” But as I stare at the screen, I continue, “… and, I guess I’m interested in hydro?”

I am surprised because the popular image of renewables is the archetypal wind farm or solar panel. I believe that hydro seems to get marginalized due to controversies surrounding its ecological and social impacts, but more on that later.

Natel project in Arizona (Source: Natel Energy)
The person at the front is Gia Schneider, CEO of Natel Energy. The company’s strategy relies on the development of cost-effective low head hydropower technology. While large dams can rise anywhere from a hundred to almost a thousand feet in height, “low head” here refers to drops of thirty feet or less. What intrigues me about the system is that instead of installing turbines directly into rivers, they retrofit them into canals, taking advantage of pre-existing water infrastructure. Natel claims that California’s irrigation canals have a hydropower potential of 255 megawatts (MW).

The question in my mind is then: “What about the context of developing countries?” Schneider mentions Chile where Natel claims they have 1,000-MW hydropower potential through existing irrigation infrastructure.

My experience has been in India where earlier this year I had visited a canal, part of the Indira Gandhi system in the Thar Desert. I happened to be at a point in the canal where the opposite of hydropower was occurring: Water was being pumped higher in order for it to flow downward. You could potentially call this hydro-consumption.

Today, India still has about 84,000 MW of general economically exploitable hydropower potential, however I am not sure if this number includes potential low head hydropower within their existing water infrastructure. At present, Natel’s projects reach up to 0.5 MW in Oregon, however Schneider emphasizes the accumulative effect of low head hydropower across an entire water system.

This echoes the “soft path” strategy popularized by Amory Lovins. For Lovins, even renewables, such as solar and hydro, could veer a nation toward an unsustainable and socially discriminatory future if they are incorporated into large, complex development projects. Large hydro development (hydel) projects do end up displacing already marginalized communities while fostering energy elitism due to the operation of complex technology and centralized energy distribution.

What Natel and small hydro in general offer is somewhat simple technology used within existing infrastructure at a local level—homegrown energy or the softer side of hydropower.

This is not to say at all that this will work in India at a national scale — let alone in the utterly dry Thar Desert. However, as India negotiates huge hydro deals with Bhutan and Nepal and environmentalists blame hydel projects for “man-made disasters” in the Himalayas and as these large projects take at least 4 to 5 years if not longer for approval, these smaller local projects may in the meantime be able to light up a few unconnected villages—putting some power into local hands.

Cross-post from the BERC Blog and The Berkeley Blog.

Monday, November 4, 2013

When we drink the devil's water

(Source: Flickr/len4its)
In the context of groundwater, she started by reading this Australian folk song from the turn of the century:
Sinking down, deeper down,
Oh, we’ll sink it deeper down.
As the drill is plugging downward at a thousand feet of level
If the Lord won’t send us water, oh, well, we’ll get it from the devil
Yes we’ll get it from the devil deeper down.
(Banjo Paterson, 1896)
At the Philomathia Forum last Friday, Sally Thompson, Assistant Professor of UC Berkeley’s Environmental Engineering program, presented on the Arkvathy River in South India, whose flow has declined since the 1970s and has now run dry in many areas; similar to the Colorado. In places where depths used to be over people heads, they can stand in what basically is now a dry field even during the rainy season.

Where has this water gone? Thompson explores the basic explanations: Has the rainfall changed? Has evaporation increased? What about channel encroachment?

Her research comes up with a negative on all counts. However, Thompson then points to what she thinks of as the elephant in the room—groundwater. Although Thompson understands river basins as complex systems, groundwater is a big piece of the puzzle. Water tables in the region have dropped up to sixty feet in the past few decades, and surface wells have gone dry. And who’s to blame?

Thompson goes back to the British era. In India, stepped water tanks in the ground were built in communities as reservoirs for agricultural use. Tank custodians would then receive a tithe of the farmers’ production. More water meant better production therefore greater tithe, incentivizing better tank management. This system collapsed when the British centralized payment to tank custodians who then lost incentive to actually manage the tanks.

Add to this water hungry development and unregulated extraction of groundwater and you have “a race to the bottom.” All of this coincides with my experiences with groundwater in India.

I surveyed the city of Gurgaon while interning with an NGO, looking for potential areas for groundwater recharge and water treatment. This city near New Delhi suddenly has popped out of seemingly nowhere with tall buildings occupied by multinationals and hip young people. Decked out with fast food joints, shopping malls and company offices, the thing that has gotten left for figuring out later is water. Now that the water table is dropping at alarming ratesa community group asked the NGO to help, as they cannot wait for the government to get its act together before it all runs dry.

Gurgaon at night (Kirk Kittell)
Water comes from a variety of sources—all interconnected. God apparently gives us water from the sky; the devil, from the ground. In ancient India, the Ganges River is a goddess who fell from great heights; and today we talk about sea level rise from Arctic glaciers via the magic of meteorology.

In some ways though, it seems rather appropriate to think of extracted water as coming from the devil. The devil works in mysterious ways. It all is quite good at the start. Then at some point we reach the bottom, and everything is gone. And all that is then left to be done is to dry up and fade away.

Cross-post from the BERC Blog.