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Big Data Battles California Drought: $2.3 Million to Wise Up

Jun 16, 2015 04:39 AM EDT
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Nearly four years in, and the state of California continues to suffer from the worst drought ever seen along the West Coast in more than a millennium. Now, the California Energy Commission has pledged a whopping $2.3 million in funding towards radically optimizing the state's wasteful agriculture and energy sectors.

So what exactly is that money for? In a collaboration between the University of California (UC) at Santa Barbara, UC Davis, and big-data startup PowWow energy, experts plan to collect and consolidate an enormous amount of valuable data on water usage. Earlier investigations had revealed that the great majority of this data went unused, and even the little that was put to work remained isolated - completely unknown to resource managers outside of the sector that recorded it.

"California's ongoing, historic drought has raised awareness of how tightly our food and agricultural system is linked to the nexus of water, climate and energy systems," Tom Tomich, director of Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis, said in a statement. "This project gives us a chance to deepen our work at this exciting interface, which is of growing significance for California and the planet."

Specifically, Tomich and his colleagues plan to facilitate a marriage between agriculture and electricity management data, as both focus heavily around water usage, and even influence one another's efficiency.

"The link between water usage and power consumption became clear when we talked to growers and power utilities," explained Olivier Jerphagnon, PowWow Energy's co-founder and chief executive officer. "It takes a lot of electricity to pump water out of California's wells."

And yet, he said higher electricity generation requires more water in power plants. Poor management and a simple lack of shared data meant that the two industries were sapping up the region's already limited water supply in a vicious cycle.

"We learned that there were opportunities to save more water and energy but that the data is fragmented," Jerphagnon added.

"Bringing all that data to one place," UCSB researcher Chandra Krintz said, "[that's] part of our job."

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