Once again, been a while since I last blogged. What do you want, I am having a busy summer. Putting order in my own chaos, and, over the top of that, putting order in other people’s chaos, this is all quite demanding in terms of time and energy. What? Without trying to put order in chaos, that chaos might take less time and energy? Well, yes, but order look tidier than chaos.
I am returning to the technological concept which I labelled ‘Energy Ponds’ (or ‘projet Aqueduc’ in French >> see: Le Catch 22 dans ce jardin d’Eden). You can find a description of that concept onder the hyperlinked titles provided. I am focusing on refining my repertoire of skills in scientific validation of technological concepts. I am passing in review some recent literature, and I am trying to find good narrative practices in that domain.
The general background of ‘Energy Ponds’ consists in natural phenomena observable in Europe as the climate change progresses, namely: a) long-term shift in the structure of precipitations, from snow to rain b) increasing occurrence of floods and droughts c) spontaneous reemergence of wetlands. All these phenomena have one common denominator: increasingly volatile flow per second in rivers. The essential idea of Energy Ponds is to ‘financialize’ that volatile flow, so to say, i.e. to capture its local surpluses, store them for later, and use the very mechanism of storage itself as a source of economic value.
When water flows downstream, in a river, its retention can be approached as the opportunity for the same water to loop many times over the same specific portion of the collecting basin (of the river). Once such a loop is created, we can extend the average time that a liter of water spends in the whereabouts. Ram pumps, connected to storage structures akin to swamps, can give such an opportunity. A ram pump uses the kinetic energy of flowing water in order to pump some of that flow up and away from its mainstream. Ram pumps allow forcing a process, which we now as otherwise natural. Rivers, especially in geological plains, where they flow relatively slowly, tend to build, with time, multiple ramifications. Those branchings can be directly observable at the surface, as meanders, floodplains or seasonal lakes, but much of them is underground, as pockets of groundwater. In this respect, it is useful to keep in mind that mechanically, rivers are the drainpipes of rainwater from their respective basins. Another basic hydrological fact, useful to remember in the context of the Energy Ponds concept, is that strictly speaking retention of rainwater – i.e. a complete halt in its circulation through the collecting basin of the river – is rarely possible, and just as rarely it is a sensible idea to implement. Retention means rather a slowdown to the flow of rainwater through the collecting basin into the river.
One of the ways that water can be slowed down consists in making it loop many times over the same section of the river. Let’s imagine a simple looping sequence: water from the river is being ram-pumped up and away into retentive structures akin to swamps, i.e. moderately deep spongy structures underground, with high capacity for retention, covered with a superficial layer of shallow-rooted vegetation. With time, as the swamp fills with water, the surplus is evacuated back into the river, by a system of canals. Water stored in the swamp will be ultimately evacuated, too, minus evaporation, it will just happen much more slowly, by the intermediary of groundwaters. In order to illustrate the concept mathematically, let’ s suppose that we have water in the river flowing at the pace of, e.g. 45 m3 per second. We make it loop once via ram pumps and retentive swamps, and, if as a result of that looping, the speed of the flow is sliced by 3. On the long run we slow down the way that the river works as the local drainpipe: we slow it from 43 m3 per second down to [43/3 = 14,33…] m3 per second. As water from the river flows slower overall, it can yield more environmental services: each cubic meter of water has more time to ‘work’ in the ecosystem.
When I think of it, any human social structure, such as settlements, industries, infrastructures etc., needs to stay in balance with natural environment. That balance is to be understood broadly, as the capacity to stay, for a satisfactorily long time, within a ‘safety zone’, where the ecosystem simply doesn’t kill us. That view has little to do with the moral concepts of environment-friendliness or sustainability. As a matter of fact, most known human social structures sooner or later fall out of balance with the ecosystem, and this is how civilizations collapse. Thus, here comes the first important assumption: any human social structure is, at some level, an environmental project. The incumbent social structures, possible to consider as relatively stable, are environmental projects which have simply hold in place long enough to grow social institutions, and those institutions allow further seeking of environmental balance.
I am starting my review of literature with an article by Phiri et al. (2021), where the authors present a model for assessing the way that alluvial floodplains behave. I chose this one because my concept of Energy Ponds is supposed to work precisely in alluvial floodplains, i.e. in places where we have: a) a big river b) a lot of volatility in the amount of water in that river, and, as a consequence, we have (c) an alternation of floods and droughts. Normal stuff where I come from, i.e. in Northern Europe. Phiri et al. use the general model, acronymically called SWAT, which comes from ‘Soil and Water Assessment Tool’ (see also: Arnold et al. 1998; Neitsch et al. 2005), and with that general tool, they study the concept of pseudo-reservoirs in alluvial plains. In short, a pseudo-reservoir is a hydrological structure which works like a reservoir but does not necessarily look like one. In that sense, wetlands in floodplains can work as reservoirs of water, even if from the hydrological point of view they are rather extensions of the main river channel (Harvey et al. 2009).
Analytically, the SWAT model defines the way a reservoir works with the following equation: V = Vstored + Vflowin − Vflowout + Vpcp − Vevap − Vseep . People can rightly argue that it is a good thing to know what symbols mean in an equation, and therefore V stands for the volume of water in reservoir at the end of the day, Vstored corresponds to the amount of water stored at the beginning of the day, Vflowin means the quantity of water entering reservoir during the day, Vflowout is the metric outflow of water during the day, Vpcp is volume of precipitation falling on the water body during the day, Vevap is volume of water removed from the water body by evaporation during the day, Vseep is volume of water lost from the water body by seepage.
This is a good thing to know, as well, once we have a nice equation, what the hell are we supposed to do with it in real life. Well, the SWAT model has even its fan page (http://www.swatusers.com ), and, as Phiri et al. phrase it out, it seems that the best practical use is to control the so-called ‘target release’, i.e. the quantity of water released at a given point in space and time, designated as Vtarg. The target release is mostly used as a control metric for preventing or alleviating floods, and with that purpose in mind, two decision rules are formulated. During the non-flood season, no reservation for flood is needed, and target storage is set at emergency spillway volume. In other words, in the absence of imminent flood, we can keep the reservoir full. On the other hand, when the flood season is on, flood control reservation is a function of soil water content. This is set to maximum and 50 % of maximum for wet and dry grounds, respectively. In the context of the V = Vstored + Vflowin − Vflowout + Vpcp − Vevap − Vseep equation, Vtarg is a specific value (or interval of values) in the Vflowout component.
As I am wrapping my mind around those conditions, I am thinking about the opposite application, i.e. about preventing and alleviating droughts. Drought is recognizable by exceptionally low values in the amount of water stored at the end of the given period, thus in the basic V, in the presence of low precipitation, thus low Vpcp, and high evaporation, which corresponds to high Vevap. More generally, both floods and droughts occur when – or rather after – in a given Vflowin − Vflowout balance, precipitation and evaporation take one turn or another.
I feel like moving those exogenous meteorological factors on one side of the equation, which goes like – Vpcp + Vevap = – V + Vstored + Vflowin − Vflowout − Vseep and doesn’t make much sense, as there are not really many cases of negative precipitation. I need to switch signs, and then it is more presentable, as Vpcp – Vevap = V – Vstored – Vflowin + Vflowout + Vseep . Weeell, almost makes sense. I guess that Vflowin is sort of exogenous, too. The inflow of water into the basin of the river comes from a melting glacier, from another river, from an upstream section of the same river etc. I reframe: Vpcp – Vevap + Vflowin = V – Vstored + Vflowout + Vseep . Now, it makes sense. Precipitations plus the inflow of water through the main channel of the river, minus evaporation, all that stuff creates a residual quantity of water. That residual quantity seeps into the groundwaters (Vseep), flows out (Vflowout), and stays in the reservoir-like structure at the end of the day (V – Vstored).
I am having a look at how Phiri et al. (2021 op. cit.) phrase out their model of pseudo-reservoir. The output value they peg the whole thing on is Vpsrc, or the quantity of water retained in the pseudo-reservoir at the end of the day. The Vpsrc is modelled for two alternative situations: no flood (V ≤ Vtarg), or flood (V > Vtarg). I interpret drought as particularly uncomfortable a case of the absence of flood.
Whatever. If V ≤ Vtarg , then Vpsrc = Vstored + Vflowin − Vbaseflowout + Vpcp − Vevap − Vseep , where, besides the already known variables, Vbaseflowoutstands for volume of water leaving PSRC during the day as base flow. When, on the other hand, we have flood, Vpsrc = Vstored + Vflowin − Vbaseflowout − Voverflowout + Vpcp − Vevap − Vseep .
Phiri et al. (2021 op. cit.) argue that once we incorporate the phenomenon of pseudo-reservoirs in the evaluation of possible water discharge from alluvial floodplains, the above-presented equations perform better than the standard SWAT model, or V = Vstored + Vflowin − Vflowout + Vpcp − Vevap − Vseep .
My principal takeaway from the research by Phiri et al. (2021 op. cit.) is that wetlands matter significantly for the hydrological balance of areas with characteristics of floodplains. My concept of ‘Energy Ponds’ assumes, among other things, storing water in swamp-like structures, including urban and semi-urban ones, such as rain gardens (Sharma & Malaviya 2021 ; Li, Liu & Li 2020 ; Venvik & Boogaard 2020,) or sponge cities (Ma, Jiang & Swallow 2020 ; Sun, Cheshmehzangi & Wang 2020).
Now, I have a few papers which allow me to have sort of a bird’s eye view of the SWAT model as regards the actual predictability of flow and retention in fluvial basins. It turns out that identifying optimal sites for hydropower installations is a very complex task, prone to a lot of error, and only the introduction of digital data such as GIS allows acceptable precision. The problem is to estimate accurately both the flow and the head of the waterway in question at an exact location (Liu et al., 2017; Gollou and Ghadimi 2017; Aghajani & Ghadimi 2018; Yu & Ghadimi 2019; Cai, Ye & Gholinia 2020). My concept of ‘Energy Ponds’ includes hydrogeneration, but makes one of those variables constant, by introducing something like Roman siphons, with a constant head, apparently possible to peg at 20 metres. The hydro-power generation seems to be pseudo-concave function (i.e. it hits quite a broad, concave peak of performance) if the hydraulic head (height differential) is constant, and the associated productivity function is strongly increasing. Analytically, it can be expressed as a polynomial, i.e. as a combination of independent factors with various powers (various impact) assigned to them (Cordova et al. 2014; Vieira et al. 2015). In other words, by introducing, in my technological concept, that constant head (height) makes the whole thing more prone to optimization.
Now, I take on a paper which shows how to present a proof of concept properly: Pradhan, A., Marence, M., & Franca, M. J. (2021). The adoption of Seawater Pump Storage Hydropower Systems increases the share of renewable energy production in Small Island Developing States. Renewable Energy, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.renene.2021.05.151 . This paper is quite close to my concept of ‘Energy Ponds’, as it includes the technology of pumped storage, which I think about morphing and changing into something slightly different. Such as presented by Pradhan, Marence & Franca (2021, op. cit.), the proof of concept is structured in two parts: the general concept is presented, and then a specific location is studied – the island of Curaçao, in this case – as representative for a whole category. The substance of proof is articulated around the following points:
>> the basic diagnosis as for the needs of the local community in terms of energy sources, with the basic question whether Seawater Pumped Storage Hydropower System is locally suitable as technology. In this specific case, the main criterium was the possible reduction of dependency on fossils. Assumptions as for the electric power required have been made, specifically for the local community.
>> a GIS tool has been tested for choosing the optimal location. GIS stands for Geographic Information System (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geographic_information_system ). In this specific thread the proof of concept consisted in checking whether the available GIS data, and the software available for processing it are sufficient for selecting an optimal location in Curaçao.
At the bottom line, the proof of concept sums up to checking, whether the available GIS technology allows calibrating a site for installing the required electrical power in a Seawater Pumped Storage Hydropower System.
That paper by Pradhan, Marence & Franca (2021, op. cit.) presents a few other interesting traits for me. Firstly, the author’s prove that combining hydropower with windmills and solar modules is a viable solution, and this is exactly what I thought, only I wasn’t sure. Secondly, the authors consider a very practical issue: corrosion, and the materials recommended in order to bypass that problem. Their choice is fiberglass. Secondly, they introduce an important parameter, namely the L/H aka ‘Length to Head’ ratio. This is the proportion between the length of water conductors and the hydraulic head (i.e. the relative denivelation) in the actual installation. Pradhan, Marence & Franca recommend distinguishing two types of installations: those with L/H < 15, on the one hand, and those with 15 ≤ L/H ≤ 25. However accurate is that assessment of theirs, it is a paremeter to consider. In my concept of ‘Energy Ponds’, I assume an artificially created hydraulic head of 20 metres, and thus the conductors leading from elevated tanks to the collecting wetland-type structure should be classified in two types, namely [(L/H < 15) (L < 15*20) (L < 300 metres)], on the one hand, and [(15 ≤ L/H ≤ 25) (300 metres ≤ L ≤ 500 metres)], on the other hand.
Still, there is bad news for me. According to a report by Botterud, Levin & Koritarov (2014), which Pradhan, Marence & Franca quote as an authoritative source, hydraulic head for pumped storage should be at least 100 metres in order to make the whole thing profitable. My working assumption with ‘Energy Ponds’ is 20 metres, and, obviously, I have to work through it.
I think I have the outline of a structure for writing a decent proof-of-concept article for my ‘Energy Ponds’ concept. I think I should start with something I have already done once, two years ago, namely with compiling data as regards places in Europe, located in fluvial plains, with relatively the large volatility in water level and flow. These places will need water retention.
Out of that list, I select locations eligible for creating wetland-type structures for retaining water, either in the form of swamps, or as porous architectural structures. Once that second list prepared, I assess the local need for electrical power. From there, I reverse engineer. With a given power of X megawatts, I reverse to the storage capacity needed for delivering that power efficiently and cost-effectively. I nail down the storage capacity as such, and I pass in review the available technologies of power storage.
Next, I choose the best storage technology for that specific place, and I estimate the investment outlays necessary for installing it. I calculate the hydropower required in hydroelectric turbines, as well as in adjacent windmills and photovoltaic. I check whether the local river can supply the amount of water that fits the bill. I pass in review literature as regards optimal combinations of those three sources of energy. I calculate the investment outlays needed to install all that stuff, and I add the investment required in ram pumping, elevated tanks, and water conductors.
Then, I do a first approximation of cash flow: cash from sales of electricity, in that local installation, minus the possible maintenance costs. After I calculate that gross margin of cash, I compare it to the investment capital I had calculated before, and I try to estimate provisionally the time of return on investment. Once this done, I add maintenance costs to my sauce. I think that the best way of estimating these is to assume a given lifecycle of complete depreciation in the technology installed, and to count maintenance costs as the corresponding annual amortization.
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