Science and Technology Studies in the energy-water nexus : a naturalistic inquiry of reclaimed water use in thermoelectric power plants

Tajchman, Kristina Lynn
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Energy is necessary to transport, treat, pump, convey, cool, and heat water such that it is available at the appropriate time, place, temperature and salinity for an array of human uses. Water is required to produce and extract fuel sources such as oil and gas, and it is used in the cooling systems of power plant operations as they generate electricity. This dissertation examines the interrelationships between these resources, also known as the Energy-Water Nexus, and the associated actors, technologies, environments, and policies that affect them.
While there are many interrelated system boundaries to this relationship that are critical to society—such as food, sanitation, and carbon footprint—I focus on large-scale solutions that can make a significant difference in efficient use of energy and water. Specifically, this study is focused on the use of water in thermoelectric power plants and investigates which factors lead decision-makers toward using reclaimed water rather than the traditionally used freshwater. Important quantitative studies have addressed feasibility, costs, logistics, and policy developments related to the use of reclaimed water for cooling, but these studies leave a substantial gap in qualitative understanding of the sociopolitical influences on this transition. To support a growing understanding of using reclaimed water as an alternative, this research design is guided by methods developed in Science and Technology Studies (STS), a field of study that recognizes the complicated and continuously evolving nature of energy and water use. The research began with an Interactive Qualitative Analysis (IQA) of utility company relationships within the ecosociotechnical infrastructure in the state of Texas. This method was followed by and completed with Naturalistic Inquiry, which is well-suited for this research because of the complex and dynamic nature of the topic under study. This approach is especially important to the energy-water nexus as the units of analysis include not only policies, climates, and social pressures, but also the changing relationships between them. Where possible, diagrams have been created to visually aid interpretation and indicate connections between scenarios and solutions. The goal of this research was to: (1) understand the variables that influence the decision-makers in the process of shifting to reclaimed water use, (2) understand how these variables relate to each other, and (3) use that understanding to articulate how to support a dynamic and adaptive framework for continual evaluation of electricity generation and water resource alternatives, and to identify the factors that influence both theory and practice in energy and water planning.