Water Security Grand Challenge

Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy

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About the Challenge

Water is a critical resource for human health, economic growth, and agricultural productivity. The United States has historically benefitted from access to low-cost water supplies, but challenges for freshwater supplies could threaten U.S. economic competitiveness and water security. Significantly for DOE, present day water and energy systems are interdependent.

The Water Security Grand Challenge is a White House initiated, U.S. Department of Energy led framework to advance transformational technology and innovation to meet the global need for safe, secure, and affordable water. Using a coordinated suite of prizes, competitions, early-stage research and development, and other programs, the Grand Challenge has set the following goals for the United States to reach by 2030:

Goal 1: Launch desalination technologies that deliver cost-competitive clean water

BACKGROUND – Over the next 10 years, 40 states expect water shortages in some areas. Cost-competitive desalination technologies can address water security and alleviate water stress by expanding alternative water resources, such as seawater, estuaries, brackish groundwater, and other sources.

CHALLENGE – Current technologies are energy intensive, with energy costs up to 10 times that of treating freshwater. Environmental issues, such as brine disposal, also pose a challenge.

OBJECTIVE – The Water Security Grand Challenge aims to address these barriers by accelerating research, development and deployment to decrease the cost of processed water, increase water supply resilience, and increase the access to low-cost water.  

Current and Recent Opportunities:

An illustration of a wave of water filling a glass with ocean waves in the background.
US Department of Energy
Goal 2: Transform the energy sector’s produced water from a waste to a resource

BACKGROUND – Produced water is a byproduct of oil and natural gas extraction, uranium mining, and carbon capture, utilization, and storage. In 2012, an estimated 21.2 billion barrels of produced water from oil and gas were generated in the United States.

CHALLENGE – The high cost of removing constituents specific to produced water can make it cheaper to dispose produced water than treat it. Even so, current disposal practices in oil and gas cost about $40 billion annually.

OBJECTIVE – The Water Security Grand Challenge aims to accelerate research, development and deployment of cost-effective treatment of produced water that can address water scarcity in water-stressed regions by creating alternative water sources for agricultural use, mineral extraction and processing, and other industrial operations, while creating new revenue for the extraction industry through water sales. 

Current and Recent Opportunities:

Fracking equipment in a field at daytime.
Goal 3: Achieve near-zero water impact for new thermoelectric power plants, and significantly lower freshwater use intensity within the existing fleet

BACKGROUND – Thermoelectric power plants utilize large volumes of freshwater for cooling operations. This water use accounts for about 40% of water withdrawals in the United States. Effluent water from thermoelectric power plants that is returned to its source can affect aquatic ecosystems if altering natural water temperatures and flows. Water that evaporates and is not returned to its source is considered consumed; this accounts for about 3% of U.S. water consumption.

CHALLENGE – The thermoelectric power sector’s reliance on water poses a risk in light of anticipated warming ambient temperatures, increased water stress, and more frequent extreme events like droughts. If improperly managed, the water demand of the thermoelectric power sector may limit water available to other uses, limiting economic growth of surrounding communities.

OBJECTIVE – The Water Security Grand Challenge aims to accelerate research, development and deployment of new technologies that lead to near-zero water impacts for newly built thermoelectric power plants along with significantly lower freshwater use intensity for existing thermoelectric power plants. 

Current and Recent Opportunities:

Steam emerges from three powerplant stacks.
Goal 4: Double resource recovery from municipal wastewater

BACKGROUND – Wastewater treatment plants purchase about $2 billion of electricity each year and face more than $200 billion in future capital investment needs to meet water quality objectives. This can constrain municipal budgets. For example, energy consumption at wastewater treatment plants can account for a third or more of municipal energy bills. Wastewater treatment plants can address these challenges by recovering critical resources and turning them into marketable products. This can create new revenue streams for upgrading water treatment infrastructure, particularly in rural communities, prevent nutrient pollution, and provide new sources of alternative water supplies. Recovered resources include energy that can be used on-site or sold, nutrients, such as phosphorous and nitrogen that can be used as fertilizer, and clean water that can be reused for agricultural, industrial, and potable purposes.

CHALLENGE – Energy costs are expected to increase over time and affect affordability of water for businesses and consumers. Disposal of residual biosolids from water treatment is another significant cost for municipalities.

OBJECTIVE – The Water Security Grand Challenge aims to pursue research, development, deployment and other opportunities to increase resource recovery. 

Current and Recent Opportunities:

U.S. map showing dots that indicate spatial and influent ranges of catalogued treatment plants.
Goal 5: Develop small, modular energy-water systems for urban, rural, tribal, national security, and disaster response settings

BACKGROUND – Small, modular energy and water systems have the potential to cost-effectively serve areas where energy and clean water are expensive and challenging to produce. Small, decentralized energy-water systems can also play an important role in serving the more than one billion people worldwide that currently lack access to reliable sources of electricity and water.

CHALLENGE – The ability to cost-effectively produce clean water for urban settings where population growth is occurring but central energy or water systems are nearing maximum capacity; for rural communities, including tribal regions where population levels cannot accommodate the economies of scale needed to make large systems viable; for military sites in remote areas without access to central electricity and water systems; and in areas impacted by disaster when storms and other events have knocked existing energy and water systems offline.

OBJECTIVE – The Water Security Grand Challenge aims to spur innovation needed to improve the cost-effectiveness of small, modular linked energy-water systems and test their performance for a range of applications.

Current and Recent Opportunities:

A device suspeded from the ground at a warehouse that converts energy from waves, tides and currents into electricity.
Get involved in the Water Security Grand Challenge
To get involved in the Water Security Grand Challenge, send your information here: watersecuritychallenge@ee.doe.gov.

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