Examining our Water Footprint with Sandia National Laboratories’ Dr. Vincent Tidwell

August 3, 2015

 
John Shegerian: This is the Wharton IGEL GE innovation-water-technology edition of Green Is Good here in beautiful downtown San Francisco. We are so honored to have with us today Dr. Vincent Tidwell. He is a distinguished member of the technical staff of the Sandia National Laboratories. Welcome to Green Is Good, Doctor. Vincent Tidwell: Thank you, John. I’m glad to be here. John Shegerian: Vincent, this is obviously an exciting day here with so many thought leaders like you talking about water, innovation and technology. Before you and I get to that, though, I just want you to share with our listeners two things – your journey leading up to your position at Sandia and then what Sandia actually does. Vincent Tidwell: Sure. Well, I guess my journey to Sandia began in high school – an interest in science altogether – then started in geology as an undergraduate, but from there, was kind of hit by economic issues with the decline in the petroleum industry. I had to find something else to do and that’s when I got into water going to the University of Arizona and on into New Mexico Tech then later on for advanced degree in water and hydrology. So I’ve always just been interested in water and how it connects and is so important to everything that we do. John Shegerian: And how long have you been at Sandia? Vincent Tidwell: Twenty-five years. John Shegerian: And what is Sandia? Explain to our viewers and our listeners what is Sandia National Laboratories? Vincent Tidwell: Sandia National Laboratories is what they call a “go-co,” a government-owned, contractor-operated facility for the Department of Energy. So, basically, we support the Department of Energy on a wide range of research initially coming out of developing the nuclear weapons. But beyond that time, we’ve expanded to look at all kinds of energy and environmental issues as well. John Shegerian: And for our listeners and our viewers out there, to learn more about what Dr. Vincent Tidwell and his colleagues do at Sandia National Laboratories, please go to www.Sandia.gov. Vincent, can you share a little bit about why you are so excited to be here today talking about water, technology and innovation right here in California. We are close to Silicon Valley, and this seems to be a topic that the media is finally giving a lot of coverage to. What’s your interest level here today in terms of what are you going to be sharing when you do your panel later today? Vincent Tidwell: Sure. Well, specifically, my interest specifically in water is around energy and the connection between water and energy. Energy is the largest user of water in the United States – even more than agriculture. It also consumes about 12-13 percent of all the electricity or energy used in the United States goes to moving and treating water. So I’ll be talking a little bit specifically about wastewater and the energy use there and also the opportunities to use the waste products. There is a lot of energy in those and so actually trying to move that to an energy neutral process. John Shegerian: When we think about innovation and water technologies today are there some that trump others? For instance, in terms of turning blackwater or greywater back to drinkable water versus desalination. In terms of the energy profiles, which one is more energy efficient, and if you were recommending one to a municipality or to a region, do you have favorites that you recommend because of energy issues, or how do you factor in the algorithms in terms of need, energy and also population basis? Vincent Tidwell: Well, that is a loaded question. There are a lot of issues there. John Shegerian: Yeah. Vincent Tidwell: And really there are two different issues. One would be the primary water supply. That’s usually where you would get into desalination. John Shegerian: Right. Vincent Tidwell: So looking at removing largely salt from the water, and there are a variety of technologies there having to do with membranes, reverse osmosis to distillation – basically, how God creates rainwater, right? John Shegerian: Right. Vincent Tidwell: And turning these into processes that we can use to effectively remove the salt from the water. The big issue there is always energy. Energy is usually the limiting factor there in terms of cost. John Shegerian: I see. Vincent Tidwell: So there is a wide variety of opportunities that we are looking at there across the lab complex, but most of them are really looking at reducing that energy burden. John Shegerian: Got you. So that is what you are doing. You’re factoring in energy and solutions and trying to bring solutions using less energy hopefully. Vincent Tidwell: Absolutely. John Shegerian: Got you. I know one of the issues – and we’re going to be talking about it later today, I just want to give a little teaser to our viewers and listeners out there on Green Is Good – I know one of the issues that are near and dear to your heart is thermal electric power. Vincent Tidwell: Yes. John Shegerian: Can you explain just in brief what that means? Vincent Tidwell: Sure. So about 80 percent of our current fleet of power plants are thermal power plants. That is, it uses a boiler, it heats up water to steam and then you have to turn that steam back into liquid water so you have to cool that water down. So that is the thermal electric process. Either you are using coal, oil, natural gas to heat that water. Well, to turn the steam back down into liquid water you have cooling towers or either an open loop system where you run basically a river through your condenser to cool the water down. So either of those processes use a lot of water and/or consume the water through evaporation to cool the water down. And as I mentioned earlier, that cooling process is the largest user of water in the United States. John Shegerian: Got you. And we’re going to be talking more about that on the panel today. Innovation, technology, water. We know how bad the problem is. Are you hopeful as we sit here today in 2015? Do the innovations and technologies exist to help us overcome our drought issue here in California, across the United States and hopefully around the world? And are you feeling hopeful now given that you have 25 years of great experience behind you but still a huge future in front of you and also the knowledge that you have? How are you feeling today in 2015? Vincent Tidwell: Absolutely. In fact, there is one really great example of how technology has really changed the water footprint of energy and that is with the lowering cost of natural gas through the hydraulic fracturing and the directional drilling that has opened up whole new reservoirs of natural gas reducing the price of natural gas which has made a huge shift in the kinds of power plants that we are building today as well as the move to a lot of renewables. And so this move to natural gas and renewables to generate more and more electricity has a much, much smaller water footprint than we see with our traditional coal or nuclear. And so that one move there is making a huge change in the way our energy demands for water going into the future are looking. A lot of other types of technology are out there in the wings that could move us much further ahead in many other areas as well. John Shegerian: But you are feeling hopeful? Vincent Tidwell: Absolutely. John Shegerian: And that’s great. I’m glad you came today. I’m glad you shared with our listeners and our viewers a little bit of what you are going to be talking about. Any last or final thoughts today before we sign off this edition of Green Is Good? Vincent Tidwell: Well, I’m just glad we’re having this dialogue. It’s very important. I think the drought here in California is a good rallying issue to be looking at it but it will be gone hopefully soon but we can’t afford to lose that momentum that we are developing around the issue right now. John Shegerian: Thank you and thank you for your time today. For our listeners and our viewers out there, to learn more about what Dr. Vincent Tidwell and his colleagues are doing at Sandia National Laboratories please go to www.Sandia.gov. This is the Green Is Good Wharton IGEL GE Innovation Technology edition of Green Is Good. We are here in beautiful downtown San Francisco. I’m John Shegerian with Dr. Vincent Tidwell. Doctor, you are truly living proof that Green Is Good. Thank you very much for your time today. Vincent Tidwell: Thank you very much.