Tech Thoughts — Are Hydropanels or Desalinization the Answer to Drought?

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Most of the West Coast of the United States, Central and South America are having severe drought problems while most of the east coast and parts of Europe are having severe flooding issues. It would be great if we could, en masse, move this water from where it was not wanted to where it is currently needed but, so far, the price of water does not justify using tankers (water or air) for such a task. Two technologies are available to the U.S.’s West Coast because of its proximity to the Pacific Ocean: Desalinization, or the removal of salt and purification of seawater, and Hydropanels, a new technology based on an old concept that distills moisture from the air.

Sadly, neither will work that well for Central Oregon but let us explore them both this week.

Desalinization

Desalinization has been around for decades, and it is in use at scale where there are resorts on islands that do not have enough rain. There are a number of large water processing plants in California that have been spun up. The two problems with desalinization are that it is very power intensive and puts a strain on either the local electrical grid or requires a large generating plant, neither of which is eco-friendly, to provide for the power needs. The other problem is elimination of waste from desalinization, which is mostly contaminated salt.

One of the recent interesting changes was to use solar either directly to apply heat to the process or indirectly to generate electricity for the process. It does allow the plant to operate during times of sunlight and if you increase the solar arrays by two to four times and install large-scale, battery-based electrical storage, you can then run the plants up to 24 hours a day with down time for maintenance.

The other problem for us in the Central Valley is that you must be near the ocean or have some way to transport desalinated water to where you need it. A lot of that would be uphill, making the cost of this solution prohibitively expensive.

Hydropanels

Hydropanels, which use sunlight to pull the moisture from the air are in existence in 52 countries and on 450 separate projects. They have several advantages over desalinization. They do not need to be near large bodies of water (though they will be more efficient if they are), they do not throw off much, if any, waste (in an area where there is a lot of smog, there might be some minor contamination you would need to deal with, but the quantity would be small). And they use the heat from the sun to function.

As you would expect, the more humid the air, the more production capability you get from hydropanels which is why I mentioned they also like being near the water where evaporation increases humidity, but they will function in dry climates as well, though the yield is reduced.

Much like solar panels, this technology could be used at your home, but that hasn’t matured yet. A few years back I looked at this technology for my home from a company called Zero Mass Water, but the cost was around $10K. It would have required putting in a special water line to a dedicated faucet and the refrigerator ice maker, and the amount of water generated would have covered what we drink but nothing else. Output was between one and two gallons a day, so drinking and cooking only depending on your family size. It might be worth it depending on how much bottled water you drink, but I couldn’t make the numbers work.

Cost makes this technology attractive mostly where you would otherwise need to ship in water and volumes appear better for personal consumption and do not reach volumes that would make it viable for irrigation.

Wrapping Up: Still No Silver Bullet for Climate Change

While desalinization does produce water in sufficient volumes to address a water shortage, the plant needs to be near the ocean or another source of salt water to work. However, you could use it to supply coastal cities with water, shifting what was their mountain-based water supplies to inland areas for a far more reasonable cost than piping the water over the mountains.

Sadly, hydropanels only scale up to personal consumption and remain costly. They deliver very clean water at a very low cost but I’m thinking they remain best in areas with too little drinking water or as an alternative if there was a concern with war, or major problems with the fresh water supply (lead pipes), where you’d otherwise need mostly bottled water. This does not yet have the scale to for irrigation.

In the end, there is no silver bullet to deal with the drought that is as effective as just reducing water waste and protecting the sources of water we already have.

Rob Enderle is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 25 years’ experience emerging technologies he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs, create new business opportunities, anticipate technology changes, select vendors and products and present their products in the best possible light.

Enderle currently contributes to the SD Times, TechNewsWorld, TechSpective, IT Business Edge, Datamation, Computerworld and TGdaily. In addition, Enderle is a technology analyst for the Compass Media Network (Radio) and he is a trained TV anchor.

Before founding the Enderle Group, Enderle was the senior research fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group. While there, he worked for and with companies like Microsoft, HP, IBM, Dell, Toshiba, Gateway, Sony, USAA, Texas Instruments, AMD, Intel, Credit Suisse First Boston, GM, Ford and Siemens.

Before Giga, Enderle was with Dataquest covering client/server software where he became one of the most widely publicized technology analysts in the world. Before Dataquest Enderle worked for IBM and was in IBM’s executive resource program. As part of that program he managed projects and people in finance, internal audit, competitive analysis, marketing, security and planning.

Enderle holds an associates arts in merchandising, a bachelor of science in business and a masters, and sits on the advisory councils for a variety of technology companies. His hobbies include sporting clays, PC modding, science fiction, home automation and computer gaming.

enderlegroup.com • 408-272-8560 • renderle@enderlegroup.com

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Rob Enderle — Enderle Group

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