Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Water and Transportation Fuels

View my white paper on Sigma Xi regarding the water consumption required for various types of alternative fuels. See: http://www.sigmaxi.org//programs/issues/King.pdf. (also see below for full text of article if link).

In this white paper I refer to an article I wrote in Environmental Science and Technology on this same subject of the Water Intensity of Transportation. In this paper I calculate the "gallons of water per mile" that are embodied via consumption (meaning mostly evaporated) and withdrawal (taken from a water source and returned to the source) during farming, mining, processing, and refining of feedstocks into fuels.

Feedstocks studied are petroleum, coal, natural gas, sun, wind, biomass (corn and soy).
Fuels studied are ethanol, gasoline, diesel, biodiesel, electricity, hydrogen, and natural gas.

On the Water Consumption for Transportation Fuels
Carey W. King, Ph.D.
University of Texas at Austin
Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy

Driving light duty vehicles (LDV) on most alternative fuels and energy sources will
consume more water per mile driven than by driving on gasoline and diesel1. The
exceptions are using compressed natural gas with natural gas powered pumps, electricity
derived from non-thermal renewable electricity (e.g. solar PV and wind), and hydrogen
derived from either electrolysis of water using non-thermal renewable electricity or steam
methane reforming. To effectively plan for the environmental consequences of moving
from high energy density petroleum to lower quality fossil fuels and biomass, we must
not unduly distribute fuels with low energy return on investment. Water consumption is
just one environmental attribute for focus, but an important one from a quantity and
quality perspective.

In 2003 the average fuel efficiency of the U.S. LDV fleet was 20.5 mpg of gasoline.
These gasoline vehicles consume, via embodied water in mining and refining, 0.1-0.2
gallons of water per mile (gal H2O/mile). Using tar sands, coal, and oil shale converted to
liquids consumes 0.3-0.5 gal H2O/mile. If using electricity from the average U.S.
generation mix, driving a car using an electric motor from a battery consumes 0.2-0.3 gal
H2O/mile. If the grid electricity is used for electrolysis of water to create hydrogen, using
that hydrogen in a fuel cell vehicle results in consumption of 0.4-0.5 gal H2O/mile. Using
non-thermal renewable electricity for electric and fuel cell vehicles consumes less than
0.05 gal H2O/mile, and obtaining the hydrogen from steam methane reforming of natural
gas consumes just under 0.1 gal H2O/mile.

The other major category of potential LDV fuels is biofuels. If the biomass feedstock is
irrigated, using so-called “blue water” from aquifers and reservoirs, the water
consumption for corn-based ethanol (E85) and soy-based biodiesel is orders of magnitude
higher than other fuels with U.S. averages of 28 and 8 gal H2O/mile, respectively. Note
that only 10% of soy and 15-20% of corn bushels are irrigated in the U.S. However, some
highly irritating regions of the U.S. could embody over 100 gal H2O/mile by growing
irrigated corn converted to E85. Cellulosic-based irrigated grasses could result in 1-9 gal
H2O/mile of consumption. Without irrigation, fueling today’s fleet of LDVs using E85
ethanol and soy biodiesel would consume 0.1-0.4 gal H2O/mile, comparable to
unconventional fossil conversions.

For almost any product or application, but certainly for agriculture, the embodied water is
essentially transferred to drier regions. For instance, in providing food aid to developing
nations, the U.S. essentially becomes a net exporter of water – that is water embodied in
the exported food. If a given region does not have the climate, or irrigation water source,
1 King, C. W. and Webber M. E. Water Intensity of Transportation. Env. Sci. & Tech. Online
9/24/08 at: http://pubs.acs.org/cgi-bin/abstract.cgi/esthag/asap/abs/es800367m.html.
for growing a certain crop, importing that crop may be a good option. However, should
the irrigation water be drawn from a fossil aquifer, the same crop grown under a different
circumstance will not be sustainable in the long term and should be considered a fossil
fuel itself simply based upon its supply chain, or life cycle. The irrigation of biomass
represents the growing of that biomass in areas with insufficient rainfall. This
relationship itself does not necessarily imply a lack of sustainability. For instance,
diverting nearby river water into a reservoir can create a stable supply source that can
withstand the normal climactic variations in rainfall.

The embodied water concept for agriculture can also be applied to biofuels but with
additional focus upon thermodynamics and energy return on investment (EROI). Many
regions may import some sugar cane-based ethanol from Brazil, yet don’t have the
climate to grow the sugar cane. Because of the relatively high EROI of cane ethanol over
corn ethanol, international shipping can make sense. Thus, the history, or supply chain, of
the biofuel is important, not just its final properties. The supply chain of fossil fuels will
also become more important over time as lesser quality resources are extracted. There
was no need to pay attention to EROI from the early coal beds and oil wells because they
so clearly allowed increased lifestyle and leisure relative to the world before the
industrial revolution.

In the concept of moving to non-petroleum fuel sources, the Renewables Fuels Standard
(RFS) of the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 has been both good
and bad from a policy perspective:

Bad in the sense that the RFS initially pushes a feedstock-fuel combination, corn
ethanol, that has detrimental environmental consequence in terms of nutrient runoff
and low EROI. But, the consequences of runoff can be minimized by not overfertilizing,
more widespread use of better tilling practices, and buffer strips next to
major rivers.

Good in the sense that the RFS has pushed forward the scrutiny of how we use energy
resources, biomass included, and focused much attention on how we can create better
biomass to fuel conversions. It has also raised worldwide awareness on the ethics of
how agricultural land should be used: food, fuel, or both?

Today, the struggle for new fuel supplies is clouded because it is not obvious what
options best provide for increased or even continued levels of lifestyle and leisure. What
is more obvious is that there are geographic regions that can sustainably grow certain
kinds of biomass that other regions simply cannot. Unconventional fossil resources such
as tar sands and oil shale have lower EROI and higher water consumption needs than
conventional petroleum. The need for more water in industrial fuel systems is an
indicator of moving to lower energy efficient sources.

Lawmakers creating future policy regarding agriculture and energy need to be cognizant
that the tie between energy and water will only increase into the future. Generally, energy
sources with lower energy density tend to require more water for mining, farming,
refining, and processing. Certainly an increase in vehicle fuel efficiency decreases the
“gallons of water per mile” traveled, but in then end, fresh water sustainability is
measured on only one “per” basis: “gallons of water per Earth”.