MicroFEWs Blog

01 May 2019

What Is the Food-Energy-Water Nexus and What Does It Mean for Rural Alaska?

By Henry Huntington

Food, energy, and water are essential for our lives. In a previous blog, we examined the concepts of food, energy, and water security. In brief, “security” in this sense means having confidence that you can and will get what you need, the way you want it. In other words, the food you like and is good for you, reliable electricity and heat, and clean and tasty water.

Now, we consider how food, energy, and water are connected. A “nexus” is a connection or a group of things that is connected. Thinking about a “food-energy-water nexus” can help us see the ways these three are linked together and how a change to one of them can have effects on the others. This is an important idea everywhere, and can give us some particular insights for rural Alaska.

Some connections create trade-offs. If the price of food goes up, we have less money to spend on electricity. Water that we use in our homes may not also be available for hydro-power. In other words, we have to choose between them. In this situation, we want to keep costs low, so we can avoid having to give up too much of one thing in order to afford another. But we are still stuck with the fact that more of one means less of another.

Other connections, however, create synergies. Wind power can not only reduce your electric bill, it can provide surplus energy to heat your home or run a greenhouse that provides more food. Burning locally produced wood instead of imported oil provides jobs in the community, meaning more money is available to buy food and other goods. In these cases, a positive change in one area leads to improvements in other areas, too.

It is usually easier to see the trade-offs than the synergies in the food-energy-water nexus. We can easily imagine what a higher electric bill means for our household finances. We can see that the power needed to run the water plant may reduce what is available for our homes and workplaces. It is important to keep these trade-offs in mind when we make decisions about turning off lights or what times of day to operate the water plant.

It is also important to look for synergies and find ways to take advantage of them. A diesel generator produces electricity when it is running, that is, when it is using fuel. Therefore we turn them off or down when the demand for power is low. A wind turbine produces electricity whenever the wind is blowing, regardless of the demand at that time. If no one is using the electricity, the power system has to find ways to shed the excess power, typically by using a resistor to generate heat. But if we can find ways to use that surplus power, we create a synergy.

For example, in Kongiganak some people have thermal stoves in their houses. A thermal stove is essentially a pile of bricks that is heated during one period, and that gives off heat for several hours afterwards. When electric demand is low (during the night, perhaps) but the wind turbines are still turning, the excess power can be used to heat the thermal stoves. When demand is high (during the workday, for instance), the stoves do not use electricity but instead give off the heat they have stored. No extra fuel is required, so the community gets the bonus of cheap heat.

Renewable energy offers several ways to provide benefits of this kind to communities in rural Alaska. Reducing the use of imported fossil fuels is a worthwhile goal by itself, but much more can be gained. It is, however, also important to beware of excessive claims for what synergies can provide in the food-energy-water nexus. Our research aims to better understand what is possible as well as what is unlikely to work. Wind turbines cost money and require maintenance, so electricity will never be free. Greenhouses produce food if people are willing to water the plants and maintain the building and its systems. Biomass burning requires having a long-term supply of firewood.

Understanding the food-energy-water nexus in rural Alaska requires partnerships with rural communities. That is why we are working with Cordova, Kongiganak, and Tanana, so we can understand how ideas for the laboratory and meeting rooms translate into actual practice in the community. We hope that our results will be useful across the state and beyond, so people can use the connections between food, energy, and water for their long-term benefit.