In this section I will be posting longer form articles from time to time. Please see below for the current feature. You can use the drop-down box to view older features.
We know that water is a requirement for life, but despite this fact we don’t treat it with the reverence one would expect. The reason lies in economics and even Adam Smith was confused. Smith, of course, is known as the father of modern economics but he puzzled over the “Diamond-Water Paradox.” Why was it, that diamonds with limited practical use (and no survival value) command much higher prices than water, a prerequisite for life? He suggested that the value was derived from labor. Finding, mining and processing a diamond was hard, time-consuming work and obtaining a drink of water was a relative cinch. While this was literally correct, the true answer can be explained using an economic concept called marginal utility. In essence, it’s not the total inputs or usefulness of a good that determine its value. Rather, it is the satisfaction (“utility”) obtained by each additional quantity. Said differently, you may love pizza or beer but if you consume too much they can make you sick. The graph below illustrates this. Early on, each additional slice of pizza makes you much more satisfied (the steep part of the curve on the left side of the graph).
The degree of “diminishing marginal utility” for water is quite high because water is perceived to be always available so we assign an artificially low price to it. Once you quench your thirst with a glass or two of water it becomes less desirable. Thus, water’s marginal utility can be illustrated by the following curve.
Most wouldn’t realize that water is the 3rd largest business in the world behind oil & gas production and electricity generation – we just take it for granted because we assume clean, freshwater is abundant – it’s not. Planet Water: Investing in the World's Most Valuable Resource cites the following statistics:
Finally, freshwater accounts for only 2.5% of the world’s water resources. Of that amount, 79% is locked in icecaps/glaciers, 20% is underground and only 1% is accessible surface water. We have a limited and fixed supply of freshwater, yet demand is surging (sixfold in the past century) and per capita increases at the current rate would result in 90% utilization all freshwater globally by 2025...
Now, apply $4 per gallon:
Converting that figure into today’s dollars assuming 3% inflation = $44,750. Not exactly pocket change and I’m not predicting this will happen. Sometimes, a seemingly gross exaggeration is needed to prove a point. Much can be done to conserve water now so this nightmare scenario doesn’t come true. Simple behavioral changes and improved technology can make a big difference. Since I live an apartment and can’t replace my inefficient toilet I try to flush only a few times a day. In the U.S., maximum allowed flush volume has been 1.6 gallons since 1995, but older toilets can use much more water. My ‘80s era toilet probably uses around 3.5 gallons per flush and any toilets still in use from the ‘60s or ‘70s could be using 5.5 gallons per flush. Efficient toilets are readily available and produce significant water savings. Low flow shower heads and/or shorter showers help and obviously minimizing outdoor watering can provide major water savings as well. Below, I’ve compiled water usage figures for several common activities:
Water usage can add up to many thousand gallons quickly and what this list ignores is all of the virtual water content inherent in the products we consume every day. According to this presentation, 1,500 gallons of water are needed to produce a hamburger, fries and a coke. All that paper we use? 3.4 trillion gallons of water per year! Clearly, there are ecological and financial benefits to be had by conserving water. Also, I want to thank my reader Phillip for sending me the above presentation and alerting me to the energy costs embedded in water usage. About 20% of total energy used in California goes toward pumping and processing water. Meanwhile, he noted, “every gallon of hot water consumes 0.147 KwH of electricity to heat.” Those extra long showers might provide less “utility” if we realized how much they cost.
Even a region that has seemingly boundless supplies of oil, the Middle East, has put shovels to the sand for the world’s largest green construction project to date. The Central Government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has long recognized that the oil would eventually run out and they began diversifying their economy into real estate, tourism and other sectors over two decades ago. Located in the UAE’s Abu Dhabi emirate, Masdar City is the largest and most ambitious commitment yet to green the economy and the country. But, what is it?
Masdar City is a wholly green city currently being built from scratch and slated for completion in 2016. It bills itself as the “world’s first carbon-neutral, zero-waste city fully powered by renewable energy.” The Masdar Initiative was envisioned to create a center for R&D that will create technological solutions for globally sustainability problems. The development is a wholly owned subsidiary of Mubadala Development Company (Abu Dhabi’s government investment vehicle) and it is expected to attract over 1,500 companies undertaking clean technology work. The 6 km2 mixed use development designed by renowned green architects, Foster & Partners, will also house 40,000 residents and accommodate 50,000 commuters. In addition to being carbon-neutral, zero-waste and operating on 100% renewable energy, the city intends to have the world’s greenest commercial buildings and become a major global center for sustainable technology research and development. Lastly, to encourage global business partnerships, the city has been designated a “Free Zone Area” with reduced barriers to entry, zero taxes, zero import tariffs and zero restrictions on capital movement.
(Courtesy: Masdar Initiative)
To guide its construction plans, Masdar City has developed comprehensive sustainability policies covering greenhouse gas emissions, waste, water, energy usage and more. From a green building standpoint they have set truly remarkable performance goals and have big plans to achieve them. Notably, 56% of the carbon reduction versus a traditional city comes from Masdar’s energy efficient buildings alone. The sustainability goals of the project are guided by a belief in One Planet Living and I have included some highlights below:
Greenhouse Gases/Energy Usage
Waste and Materials
In seeking to achieve its goals, Masdar City combines all the best traditional Arabic building practices with all the advanced infrastructure technologies you’ve read about or maybe haven’t even heard of yet. Plans will utilize traditional passive cooling measures such as shaded walkways, narrow diagonal streets encouraging shade and oriented to benefit from cooling night breezes and lessen hot daytime winds, wind towers, blinds and solar shades. Additionally, all the buildings are designed to reduce the need for artificial lighting and AC and surpass the highest international efficiency standards.
On the modern technology front, city planners will benefit from implementing brand new infrastructure from day one. Plans include advanced “smart grid” management for electricity and water, highly efficient district cooling systems a solar-powered desalination plant for fresh water and the world’s first large-scale Personal Rapid Transit (PRT). You may have seen PRT tests featured on the Discovery Channel and aside from the space-age cool factor, PRTs will provide luxurious, automated taxi service in a incredibly efficient manner. Masdar City’s fleet of 3,000 Personal and Freight vehicles would transport its people and goods, collect solid waste and provide direct connections to the airport and local and regional mass transit, including metro, intercity rail and buses. Eliminating fossil fueled cars contributes to significant carbon savings and the PRT’s magnetic tracks would be powered by the city’s 100% renewable energy sources.
(Courtesy: Masdar Initiative)
All of these plans are nothing if not ambitious and there will certainly be challenges along the way. If the building efficiency projections don’t pan out, will the 92% solar derived energy be sufficient? Will the novel infrastructure, some of which has never been built or used on this scale before, function as planned? Finally, the project relies on people to change their standard behavior and adapt to green living, can they be trusted to change so swiftly? The hope is that Masdar becomes an evolutionary model that can be refined and replicated in other regions under different status quos. Building this City is a bold, pioneering and worthy effort to demonstrate sustainability on a grand scale.
Now that green planning of Masdar’s scope has been proved possible and technological barriers continue to fall, the primary remaining ingredient for success is committed leadership. Ahmed Ali Al Sagyeh, Chairman of the project, has stated his plans as follows: “Masdar aims to become a source of energy, knowledge and innovation in order to maintain Abu Dhabi’s position as a global energy leader. It is committed to the optimum use of natural and human resources so that Abu Dhabi can develop into a global centre of excellence for renewable energy research, development and innovation.” Given the thoroughness of their plans and the UAE’s track record of achievement with other previously unimaginable construction projects (ex: the numerous artificial “Palm Islands” and “Countries of the World” islands built in the Persian Gulf or the Burj Dubai – the world’s tallest man-made structure at 2,684 feet/818 meters), they are well on their way to achieving this mission. An even greater level of success could be achieved if others around the world undertake similar projects and the reimagined silicon valley of the Middle East develops major clean technology breakthroughs.
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