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Water Conservation Technologies to Enjoy Tremendous Growth/China Targets Desalination, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

While carbon typically gets most of the press coverage, water may offer the biggest single sustainability challenge of the near future.  Water technologies will undoubtedly be one of the green tech sectors offering the biggest business opportunities.  Not surprisingly, China is already targeting this sector aggressively, and over the mid-term we are likely to see China develop a high-value, low-price product advantage in water technology, in the same way that they have recently done in solar cells.  Israel, a highly competitive nation in software and computer fields, is also pursuing water technologies aggressively, due to its own local challenges.
Devastating droughts suffered by western U.S. states in recent years was a dramatic reminder of the looming demand for water technologies and conservation.  The potential growth for demand looks very intense when you factor in global population growth, from roughly 8 billion today to as high as 10 billion by 2050, and the continuing rapid rise in global industrialization and the middle class.
Agriculture is the biggest user of water by far (by some estimates accounting for more than 70% of all global water use), and much of the future of water technology lies in tools that will enable farmers to continue to allow their crops to flourish while reducing the total amount of water that they use.  One of the most useful green technologies in this area will be advanced drip irrigation systems, delivering water exactly where it is needed in exactly the quantities required for healthy plants.  Over the long term, remote wireless sensors will be used on the most advanced farms, gathering soil moisture and nutritional content data, and alerting monitoring systems as to when and where to send irrigation.  Irrigation will grow very rapidly as the demand for and cost of water rise.  The UN estimates that global food output will have to increase by 70% by 2050 thanks to growth in population and rising household incomes that will increase discretionary food purchases.  While advanced agricultural technology, known as “precision agriculture,” and genetically modified seeds (that produce much more crop output per acre, often with plants that are more tolerant of drought) offer the promise of filling this need, water efficiency must be enhanced or such increased crop production may be impossible.  Meanwhile, many researchers worldwide are working on developing fertilizers, such as those based on natural microbes, that are more environmentally friendly.
Industrial water (estimated to account for at least 15% of global water use) is also a critical issue, and a very promising field for water conservation and recycling technologies.  As the price of water inevitably increases and strong demand ensues, business and industry will begin to place a strong focus on water conservation, in the same way that they have been placing a growing emphasis on energy conservation over the past several years.
Also, municipal water systems, thanks to aging, leaking systems, are among the world’s biggest water wasters.  Many of the water works in the world’s biggest cities are literally hundreds of years old and leak stunning amounts of water.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that the average American residence uses 100,000 gallons of water yearly, indoors and outdoors.  Technologies for the detection and repair of city water system leaks will be in high demand.  Not surprisingly, the biggest challenges from increased water use and restricted supply will arise in the world’s two most populous nations: India and China.
Much of the answer will come from desalination of sea water.  China, seeing not only its own intensifying need for fresh water but also a growing global market, is likely to utilize the same tactics in the desalination sector that it did in solar cells.  That is, China may provide support to manufacturers of desalination equipment via low cost loans, low cost land, investment by both local and national government, export subsidies and official research and development efforts from universities and government-sponsored institutes.
As with other industries, most of the technology for China’s desalination is initially coming from other nations, such as Israel, which is the world’s leader in desalination technologies.  Eventually, however, China will rely on domestic manufacturing for its desalination needs.  Meanwhile, China is investing regionally in water conservation and other technologies.  In the manufacturing center of Tianjin, for example, nearly 90% of industrial water is recycled, while more than 50% of farm irrigation is based on water-conserving technologies such as drip irrigation.
The Coca-Cola Company, in addition to its charitable endeavors with regard to drinking water, pledged in 2007 to replenish, to the environment, the amount of water equal to its sales volume of soft drinks per year) by 2020.  In mid-2015, the company reached its goal, achieving a balance of 191.9 billion liters of water used in finished beverages and also replenished in communities around the world.
The energy industry is a big consumer of water.  Electric generating plants require large amounts of cooling water, often from lakes.  This means that electric generation could be dramatically hurt by drought.  Fortunately, the latest types of gas electric generation plans (including “NGCC” combined cycle and “NGCT” combustion turbine) use dramatically less cooling water than coal steam turbine plants.  The shift that is currently underway from coal plants to natural gas plants will have a significant and long-term effect on total water usage in this industry.  The shift to gas is a direct result of lower gas prices caused by huge increases in gas production from gas wells in shale formations.  Ironically, these shale gas wells utilize large amounts of water in the completion phases of the wells thanks to fracking.  However, the drilling industry is moving toward recycling of this water.  Meanwhile, a recent study by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin, as published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, found that the water saved by using the newer natural gas combined cycle electric plants relative to coal steam turbines is 25 to 50 times greater than the amount of water used in fracking to produce the gas at the well.

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