Make Energy Great Again?

Save the typewriters!

The recent political landscape and national zeitgeist has prompted me to think about resource production and distribution in a new context.  I have wondered: do I wish for a return to what once was?  Should we roll back the clock to strive to recapture something that existed in the past?  I will share a short personal story in hopes that my full conclusions can be understood.

I grew up in a small town.  By many measures, it is less prosperous today than it was 40 years ago.  You may have never heard of Groton, NY, but if you see a Smith Corona typewriter in an antique market, it was likely made less than a mile from my childhood home.  The factory was THE employer in town with 1200 high paying jobs in a community of 2300 people.  I remember childhood friends having an attitude that school didn’t matter because everyone could get a job in ‘the factory’.  There was a sense that the town would be prosperous forever.  The local economy was booming.  Citizens attained their American Dream because there was so much opportunity.


I am sure you can guess what happened with the advent of the personal computer.


I have fond memories of my childhood home.  The gravity of nostalgia pulls on my desire to press the reset button and see the town it its former glory, but that can’t and won’t happen by clinging to the past because…


The world did not mourn the loss of the typewriter.


No one organized a grassroots movement to ‘save the typewriters!’  That would have been selfish, short sighted, and silly.   The world is better with typewrites gone.   The total opportunities in the world increased with the invention of the computer.  Millions of people attained their American Dream elsewhere because of the typewriter’s funeral.   The world has moved on, as it moves on from all things.  Everything we own and use is a replacement of what came before.  Your job once belonged to someone else.  This is the natural progression of innovation, and we should not lament the losses of the past; even when the losses are profoundly personal.

Energy production is not immune from innovation.  Alternative energy sources are beginning to compete with fossil fuels.  Would the world mourn the loss of coal if it were replaced by something cleaner, safer and cheaper?  No!  That is the challenge for sustainable energy within the climate change conversation.  The scientists and innovators of the world can’t just discuss change, we have to effect change by offering a better alternative for the future.  For example: sustainable (or carbon free) energy must become a better alternative, not for some moral imperative or fear for an uncertain future or any other nonsense.  It simply has to be better. And by being better, it will create new opportunities in the marketplace.  One day we will think of coal in the same way we think about typewriters today.  The same logic of relentless change applies to everything–including ourselves.  My conclusion is that we should not let the gravity of nostalgia pull us away from a more prosperous future.  It is our duty to innovate and remain relevant to resist the seductive pull of former success.

The Club of Rome Hypothesis


Experiment: start blowing up a balloon, don’t stop. What happens? The balloon will eventually pop. Infinite growth is impossible in a finite system. This is a tenant of thermodynamics. A balloon popping is a nonlinear problem. You go from having a full balloon to a handful balloon shards (fundamentally new equilibrium state) with only a tiny change in added air, but all previous additions of air only changed the size of the balloon in a predictable way. This is one of the foundational ideas presented in the Limits to Growth. The earth is finite; its resources are finite. Eventually there will be a hard limit on how much growth can occur. That is, our population growth will be limited by some bottleneck resource. Once that limit is reached, a nonlinear correction is inevitable. Here, a ‘correction’ as some process by which the system comes to a new equilibrium.

The Club of Rome Hypothesis: the energy-water-food nexus will self-correct to a new, unknown equilibrium state when the demand for a bottleneck resource exceeds its capacity.

Commentary: ‘correction’ is a polite euphemism for massive and abrupt reductions in global population. I think of this as a calamity, not a ‘correction’, but I don’t believe this hypothesis should be a central motivation for work or a motivation to proliferate the awareness of the energy-water-food nexus. Rather, I believe that the purpose of science is to make the world a better place in which to live. Finally, we should learn from past successes and failures. Here I am thinking about the ‘debate’ surrounding climate change, and the scientific communities’ inability to be persuasive.

There is only 1 future; don’t blow it

The Clinton Hypothesis


The economy. stupid’ was a mantra of the Clinton campaign for presidency. I remember it vividly. It is a beautiful execution of language and persuasion around an issue. Even today, I still have a mental link between that phrase and economics (sorry to the republican economists). Just to be clear, I have no formal economic training. Economists, if you are reading this, please chime in. I would love to hear from an expert. The economy is undoubtedly a driver of the energy-water-food nexus, and there are a large amount of economic parallels within the language and real elements of the nexus. I am sure that one or more economists would argue that the entire water-energy-food nexus could be thought of, and understood within the context of economics. For example: scarcity can be thought of a lack of willingness to acquire the resource in question.

I was at a fascinating session at the NCSE conference on the energy water food nexus and one of the speakers proposed the following: the main economic problem with water is its value. That is, because of its high value to society, centralized services operate to ensure that there is a viable and secure supply. This makes water cheap to the consumer. Thus water is improperly valued at the consumer level. The Clinton Hypothesis centers on the value of resources, economic incentives and market forces that together manifest the energy-water-food nexus.

The Clinton Hypothesis: The energy water food nexus can be understood completely through economic analyses if resources are properly valued.

Commentary: the economy is certainly a central driver/influential factor of the nexus. GDP has a strong influence on the demand for resources. But, I am not convinced that economics alone can model the entire system. My rational is that the natural systems do not care about the economy, and that confluences of events between the natural and economic system are important. There are costs associated with natural events that are not easily predicted within an economic framework.

The Bush Hypothesis

One of the most fascinating properties of the energy-water-food nexus is the way it can synthesize.  It brings together research communities; it brings together grand ideas, and it can bring together political ideologies.  It does this by providing a higher ground where we can envision our future.  Pundits, thinkers and politicians may disagree on tactics, but  most leaders in their respective fields express a desire to make the world a better place…in their eyes (this is the high ground).   Many have something of value to say.  All options should be heard and synthesized into a nexus framework. Enter former President Bush.

BushChallenge accepted.

I have a vague memory from several years ago, a statement in an address by the former president where he sculpted his views on energy and resource management.   It took a while to dig it up, but here it is:

Our approach must be flexible to adjust to new information and take advantage of new technology. We must always act to ensure continued economic growth and prosperity for our citizens and for citizens throughout the world. We should pursue market-based incentives and spur technological innovation.

The Wilson hypothesis gives us one potential path toward a more sustainable world…if only we engender humanity with a new environmental ethic.  In contrast the Bush hypothesis relies on technological innovation as the path forward.

The Bush Hypothesis: resources saved or made available through technological innovation will offset increased demands.

Bush has called for an increase in the knowledge-based inputs of step-wise resource management.  This is the space of both market driven innovation and university research.  One interpretation of the Bush Hypothesis, within a nexus framework, is an impassioned call for a greater investment in science.  Science will save us!

The Wilson Hypothesis

What has been said is often rehashed, reshaped and reframed into something new. Our words are clay that can be formed to suit our needs. The energy-water-food nexus is not a new idea, and great thinkers have weighed in on the topic, even if they didn’t use the buzzwords that fill our thought-space today. Enter E.O. Wilson…


“Few will doubt that humankind has created a planet-sized problem for itself. No one wished it so, but we are the first species to become a geophysical force, altering Earth’s climate, a role previously reserved for tectonics, sun flares, and glacial cycles. We are also the greatest destroyer of life since the ten-kilometer-wide meteorite that landed near Yucatan and ended the Age of Reptiles sixty-five million years ago. Through overpopulation we have put ourselves in danger of running out of food and water. So a very Faustian choice is upon us: whether to accept our corrosive and risky behavior as the unavoidable price of population and economic growth, or to take stock of ourselves and search for a new environmental ethic.” {emphasis mine}

My first impression is that one day I hope to write like that! Here Wilson had merged water, food, economy, climate, people, and behavior. If energy consumption is implied in the ‘altering Earth’s climate’ statement, and I think it is, then this is a complete thought regarding the connectivity of the water-energy-food nexus. It is also a contemplation of consequences, and suggests two potential outcomes: status quo continues, with consequences envisioned, or we (humanity) find a ‘new environmental ethic.‘  This is the foundation of what I will call the Wilson Hypothesis.

The Wilson Hypothesis: A sustainable future requires a dramatic change in our attitude toward resource management and consumption.

We may disagree on the possibility that this hypothesis will ever be put to the test, or in its substance, but I think it is needed as a discussion point. Resource management is a step-wise process that intends to meet the resource demands of the global population. The demand side should be addressed, and the Wilson Hypothesis posits one potential pathway: a substantive change in people’s attitudes.

Red Water


In the previous post, I postulate that the nexus is built from an interwoven set of step-wise resource refinement processes. The step-wise process for water is the premise for this post.  The water steps are: atmospheric water vapor, all other available water, water that has been extracted from the environment and refined in some way, and water that is delivered to consumers. If we look at this hierarchy in conjunction with the definitions of the ‘water footprint community’ we see various parallels. This community uses color to brand water by its source and use. Below I quote the definitions from the Wikipedia page, and  Similar definitions can be found in the scientific literature. Like them or hate them, they can be convenient for starting a conversation.

“Blue water: Fresh surface and groundwater, in other words, the water in freshwater lakes, rivers and aquifers.”

“Green water: The precipitation on land that does not run off or recharge the groundwater but is stored in the soil or temporarily stays on top of the soil or vegetation. Eventually, this part of precipitation evaporates or transpires through plants. Green water can be made productive for crop growth (although not all green water can be taken up by crops, because there will always be evaporation from the soil and because not all periods of the year or areas are suitable for crop growth).”

“Grey water footprint: The grey water footprint is the volume of polluted water that associates with the production of all goods and services for the individual or community. The latter can be estimated as the volume of water that is required to dilute pollutants to such an extent that the quality of the water remains at or above agreed water quality standards. “

What I see when I read these definitions is that the point of origin and ultimate destination of the water in question defines its classification. But, we can apply some nexus thinking here as well.  If blue water, the water in a lake for example, was needed for some industrial process, it would need to be pumped to the factory (taking it up a level in our nexus refinement hierarchy) before it is used. By contrast, green water is water that is available where it is needed. Rain falling on a crop is green water.  Grey water is a waste product from consumption. The water colors are congruent with the resource refinement framework of the energy-water-food nexus. Water can just as easily be assigned a descriptive color based on its originating ‘level’ in the step-wise hierarchy of resource refinement and its destination. I pose a new set of definitions that are equivalent with established norms, but resonate with nexus ideas:

Blue water: water that required energy or resources to deliver and is used for industry, residential or agriculture.

Green water: water that did not require any energy or resources to deliver and is used for industry, residential or agriculture.

Grey water: water that has been diminished in quality or availability after industrial or agricultural use.

What is missing from the ‘water rainbow’ conversation in the nexus context is the water that is appropriated for energy production. This water is typically used to dispose of waste heat, and may be consumed in the process through evaporation. This water could be classified ad ‘blueish’ by both sets of definitions, but they fall short. Water color was defined by point of origin and destination. Power generation is not a listed destination, and this type of water has a different feel, figuratively and literally, since its fate is to end up hot! Thus I propose the term…

Red Water: Water used in energy production

This definition extends the water footprint ideas that have been used for some time in agriculture and industry to the nexus framework.  It also makes a clear distinction for energy production, something needed for nexus research.


Step-wise Resource Management

The basic components of a conceptual framework should mirror the most basic elements of the process. So, we should think about the building blocks of the nexus and their purpose. The temptation is to say that these elements are water, energy and food (well of course!), but that is a reflexive, fast thought process. Another approach would be to ask: why does the water-energy-food nexus exist in the first place? The clear answer is that we, humans, need water and food to survive, and we need energy to improve our standard of living, safety and security. That line of thinking led us back to water, energy and food elements, but it does hint at a process, and focuses more on people, which is better.

If we try a mechanistic approach, there may be an even deeper, simpler foundation. We can ask: how are the demands for resources met? Resources (water, energy or food) are extracted, refined and redistributed through a process of natural resource management. Here I define resource management as a value added process that balances the demand for a resource with its supply. A mechanistic approach hints that the foundation of the water-energy-food nexus is natural resource management. It still has a focus on people (demands), but also incorporates natural factors and resource availability (supply).


Resource management is a step-wise process that involves extraction, refinement and redistribution. Each step likely requires inputs and generates some waste. Each step has a unique efficiency. The processes and resulting efficiency that occur at each step are influenced by background factors: natural cycles, the ecosystem, policy and political decisions, and consumer decisions. Inputs can be energetic, material or knowledge based. Energy can come in many forms: electric, liquid fuel, solar etc. Material inputs can include water and agricultural products. Knowledge inputs include data, innovation, experience and technology that alter process efficiency. The nexus arises from the realization that necessary inputs can come from and the waste products can go to a separate resource management process.

The energy-water-food nexus is a system that extracts refines and redistributes resources.

Hello Nexus World

Purpose of This Blog

From Perspective to Approach to Action

My current interpretation of energy-water-food nexus work is that it is creating and building a nexus perspective. That is, there is a growing realization of the interwoven nature of natural resource management. Work has begun to catalog the available resources; to document the interactions and inter dependencies that are known. Building a nexus perspective is a necessary first step, and has resulted in the proliferation of the energy-water-food nexus idea. But a nexus perspective, in isolation, does not lead to action. In fact, I have purposely redacted statistics and numbers from this first post, as I feel they can obfuscate what I believe is the necessary next step.   If the research community desires, as I do, to extend our resources, something more is needed. We, as a community have to go from a nexus perspective, to a nexus approach, to nexus action. The relevant facts and details collected to engender a nexus perspective must be organized under some unifying framework or idea (yet another blog post to come). The necessary next step is a synthesis of multiple disciplines.  The energy water food nexus is too connected and too complex to be housed in a single ‘silo’. Thus, the purpose of this blog is to help build a community of people who are interested in pursuing a nexus approach; who want to help create tools that lead to nexus action.

Purpose of My Research

Engineering Solutions to Extend our Resources

There are a lot of levers to pull in this space, but I am an engineer. Engineering is what I know. I was indoctrinated to try to solve problems as I see them, and I see a problem. The world is finite. We must live on this planet with the resources available. We must live on this planet with 7+billion others. I don’t want to get into social topics and ethics yet, but the universal declaration of human rights is worth reading. I am also influenced by the book: Limits to Growth in this regard. I am not smart enough to save the planet, but I would like to help stall, to buy some time, to extend what we have a little longer. This is where science can help. Incremental improvements in efficiency and a system understanding will buy time. It may only be a little at first, but the cumulative effect of a robust and vigorous scientific community will be felt. I admit that this is not THE solution to the problem we face, but I do have some thoughts on the matter, and a rationale as to why I have chosen this strategy (more to follow in another blog post)


Who am I?

NEWAg, the name of this blog and of my lab at Oregon State University, stands for the Nexus of Energy Water and Agriculture. I agree that it is an unlikely topic of interest for someone with my educational background (mostly based in engineering and fluid mechanics). It is a topic that found me. It hit me like a ton of bricks just after I was hired at Oregon State in an irrigation position. In the American West, agricultural prosperity is tied to irrigation and water availability, but there is more to it. Water is an integrative substance that links scientific disciplines and physical processes. The first grant I ever received was to investigate energy saving irrigation technologies for the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (NEEA). This got me thinking about the energy cost of water and the water cost of food. Water is heavy; it takes a lot of energy to move.

That winter, I attended the American Geophysical Union conference and listened to a talk that outlined a hypothesis: wind turbines altered the transport of materials in the atmosphere near the land surface. Neurons fired, and a connection was forged with the irrigation work. I had imprinted on the scenery from my drive to the irrigated fields.


They were surrounded by wind turbines.   If the wind turbines changed the transport of everything, then they should change the evaporation. Even sustainable energy can cost water. Energy, water, and food were connected. Not just connected, but interwoven. Energy, water and food may be fungible! I came back from AGU invigorated and immediately drew the following on the white board.


My first ever nexus diagram. An admittedly feeble attempt, but give me some credit, it was an absolute brain dump. Of course, this was not the first time someone had this realization, but it was the moment when I realized the importance of systems level interactions in natural resource management.

How did you ‘discover’ the energy water food nexus?