Climate change is impacting our relationship with water, from changing the water systems we rely on for energy and power to exacerbating the already present water crisis, with more than 1.1 billion people lacking access to potable water. It is estimated that by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in water-stressed conditions. Climate change poses an expanding and ever-present threat to our environment, our health, and our economy; it exacerbates inequality and devours scarce resources—including the water we drink.

Today, we celebrate World Water Day 2021, and the theme of this global campaign, is ‘what does water mean to you?’ At the Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO), water is more than just our work—it is key to an energy strategy that will lead our nation to a fully decarbonized grid and economy. The improvement of water power technologies offers benefits like grid reliability, through more firm power sources like hydro and predictable sources like tidal, and provide economic opportunities by unlocking power constraints in multiple markets.

At WPTO, we recognize that water—specifically water power technologies—presents opportunities. Opportunities to create jobs, to improve the resilience of coastal communities, to confront environmental injustice, and to develop the technologies necessary to help us adapt and achieve a 100% clean energy economy. There is an opportunity to reimagine the way we use and deliver water power, including creating more resilient infrastructure, producing clean water, unlocking the full potential of our ocean resources, and better aligning technology development with the needs of end users and communities.

Through a host of programs, prizes, and partnerships, WPTO is working to harness American ingenuity to advance marine energy as well as next generation hydropower and pumped storage systems for a clean, flexible, reliable grid and to unlock opportunities to decarbonize other parts of the economy.

Examples of recent successes and initiatives include:

  • Powering the Blue Economy: In 2019, WPTO launched the Powering the Blue Economy™ Initiative to accelerate the development and deployment of marine energy technologies. Through this initiative, WPTO is taking meaningful steps toward protecting, understanding, and leveraging the immense power of our oceans to build resilient coastal communities and provide power at sea.  
  • From Saltwater to Drinking Water: Coastal communities are increasingly looking to the ocean to develop resilient energy, food, and water systems. The five-stage, $3.3-million Waves to Water Prize accelerates innovation in the development of small, modular, wave-powered desalination systems capable of producing clean water in disaster recovery scenarios, as well as water-scarce coastal and island locations.
  • Exploring What Lies Beneath the Waves: Currently, more than 80% of the ocean is unmapped, unobserved, and unexplored. WPTO’s Ocean Observing Prize, run in partnership with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), encourages innovators to integrate marine renewable energy into ocean observation platforms, offering up to $3 million in cash prizes.
  • Hydropower and Grid-Focused Initiative Produces New System Designs, Prize Results, Analyses, and Specialized Technical Assistance: Launched in April 2019, the HydroWIRES (Water Innovation for a Resilient Electricity System) Initiative is designed to understand, enable, and improve hydropower and pumped storage’s contributions to reliability, resilience, and integration in the rapidly evolving U.S. electricity system. The unique characteristics of hydropower, including pumped storage hydropower (PSH), make it well-suited to provide a range of storage, generation flexibility, and other grid services and support the cost-effective integration of variable renewable resources.
  • National Labs Commercialize Environmental Evaluation Tools: Under the HydroPASSAGE project, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory successfully tested, licensed, and commercialized a number of tools to reduce fish injury and mortality of entrained fish as well as lower the regulatory costs of licensing and operations.
  • Low-Cost, Modular Pumped Storage That Can Be Installed Anywhere: The Ground-Level Integrated Diverse Energy Storage (GLIDES) project, led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, concluded initial phases of R&D on a new form of PSH targeting the gap between small-scale batteries and large grid-scale PSH options. GLIDES is a modular, scalable energy storage technology with promising estimated returns on investment for future commercial projects.

As we reflect on what water means to us today, we are inspired by the successes we’ve seen so far and the endless possibilities ahead of us. From encouraging innovation in water power technologies, to helping to provide low-cost, emission-free, drought-resistant drinking water to communities, WPTO is rethinking water power and how it can serve as a conduit to both economic and community resilience.

Learn more about WPTO’s work to protect, preserve, and understand our precious water resources.

Alejandro Moreno
Alejandro Moreno is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Renewable Power in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE).
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