This article has been previously published on EOS Earth Space Science News and has been reposted here with kind permission by the author. The interactions between food production, energy production, and water supplies, sometimes referred to as the food-energy-water (FEW) nexus, are critically important to sustaining society. Two components of this nexus, energy and water, are strongly interrelated: Generating electricity and refining fuel require us to use water; pumping, delivering, and treating water require us to use energy. Links between the energy and water systems are expected to intensify in the future. Therefore, it is important to understand and foster continued attention to the interdependency between the systems in the energy-water (EW) nexus. Developing educational approaches focusing on this relationship is critical to building the next generation of scientists, engineers, and other professionals in the energy and water supply sectors. However, current undergraduate curricula typically lack the content and resources to address the complexity of the EW nexus, and most of the recent educational efforts are focused at the graduate level. To address this, we have developed a web platform and a pilot learning module focusing on energy and water in an effort to address EW nexus educational needs. The HydroViz Nexus platform can be used in upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses that deal with water resources and sustainability topics within disciplines such as civil engineering and geosciences. We put particular emphasis on thermoelectric power generation (converting heat from burning fuels into electricity).
A User Experience ExampleEfforts to develop meaningful nexus educational experiences that go beyond reading assignments or qualitative-type analysis face several challenges. These include a lack of prior experience on the part of educators who design teaching materials that address the EW systems; lack of accessibility to and usability of nexus data sets, modeling, and analysis tools; and curricular constraints. To overcome these challenges, our platform follows an active-learning approach and includes a set of student-centered activities using actual EW data sets from around the United States. The platform supports easy access to interactive data analysis and visualization tools and engages students in authentic contexts of EW problems at the scale of a hydrologic basin for any of the contiguous states in the United States. Additionally, the platform provides embedded support to check student comprehension and provide assistance on demand. The platform does not require any specialized capabilities other than access to the Internet and standard spreadsheet software. Open-source geographical information system (GIS) software may also be used but is not required.
Data-Driven ApproachIn developing the Web platform, we built a suite of spatially distributed EW data sets over the entire domain of the United States. The data sets include water supply and water use by major sectors of municipal, industrial, agricultural, and thermoelectric power generation. Data on water supply and demand are provided for surface and groundwater sources, as well as projections for water use in 2030 that factor in population growth. The platform houses data on all power plants in the United States, including information on plant capacity, energy generation, fuel type, and cooling technology for each plant. The platform also includes other relevant state-specific information on energy production cost, retail prices, consumption per capita, carbon emission rates, and population projections.
From Data to KnowledgeThe Web-based EW nexus platform and the pilot module are housed as part of the HydroViz hydrology education project. The platform interface integrates a lesson tab that provides access to the full learning content of each section and a map tab with an interactive display of geospatial layers. A key feature of the interface is a tool that allows selection, filtering, spatial visualization, and basic statistical summaries of the EW data sets. Students can interact with the EW data sets at various spatial scales, from one basin or one state to the entire United States. The interface provides user support mechanisms in the form of screencasts, tutorials, and interactive quizzes with immediate feedback. The module interface includes sections titled “Rate Your Learning” with survey-type questions to gather student perceptions on whether the module contributed to their learning.
Student-Centered Learning ActivitiesThe module contains a total of 10 learning activities that cover different components (Figure 2) of the EW nexus:
- analysis of water supply and demand
- analysis of stress on surface water and groundwater systems
- sectoral analysis of water stresses
- impact of environmental flows
- analysis of groundwater depletion
- mapping power plants in the United States
- impact of power plant retrofitting on the water system
- water requirements for carbon capture and sequestration technologies
- analysis of water-energy nexus under future population growth scenarios
- use of nontraditional water resources for energy, with cost-benefit analysis