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Dr. Sanders’ Sustainable Systems Group’s mission is to conduct system-level analyses that seek to resolve issues with technical, political, and societal significance to inform better decision making in regards to energy and water resource management. Our current research projects fall into the four categories detailed below. (Visit our publication page to see all publications organized by theme.)

1. The Energy-Water Nexus

Energy and water are vital to economic security and quality of life. Together they enable an ample food supply, safe drinking water, electricity production, and other elements of a high quality of life. They are also interrelated: energy is required to pump, treat, pressurize, and heat water, and water is critical to producing fuels and cooling power plants. Because of this relationship, there are cross-sectoral impacts, both good and bad. Without enough energy, access to potable water and proper sanitation is hindered, which is a problem that compromises the health and well-being of billions around the world. Without enough water, thermoelectric power plants cannot be adequately cooled, hydroelectric facilities cannot operate, and the production of fuels can be interrupted, which can lead to blackouts and energy supply shortages. On the other hand, the water sector offers storage and demand-side management opportunities that could help the energy sector decarbonize, while the energy sector offers untapped opportunities for water savings. Our research explores this relationship to identify strategies for holistic resource conservation strategies.

Funded Projects

CAREER: Coordinating climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies across the energy-water nexus: An integrated research and education framework

  • Sponsor: National Science Foundation (Award number: 1845931)
  • PI: Dr. Kelly Sanders
  • Award Value: $507,490
  • Status: Active

Los Angeles Renewable 100% Energy Study

  • Sponsor: The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power
  • PI: Dr. Kelly Sanders
  • Co-PIs: Dr. Adam Rose (USC) and Dr. George Ban-Weiss (USC)
  • Total Award Value: $495,760
  • Status: Active

Flexible Demand Response Services Provided by the Water Sector and Water-Related End-uses

  • Sponsors: Electric Power Research Institute
  • PI: Dr. Kelly Sanders
  • Co-PI:  Dr. Amy Childress
  • Total Award Value: $55,000
  • Status: Active

Evaluating synergistic opportunities to utilize impaired waters in coastal regions

  • Sponsors: Electric Power Research Institute
  • PI: Dr. Amy Childress
  • Co-PIs: Dr. Kelly Sanders and Dr. Andrea Achilli
  • Total Award Value: $110,000
  • Status: Completed

Other Projects In Progress

  • Quantifying the water consumption and water withdrawal impacts of the energy system.
  • Quantifying the life-cycle water impacts of consuming electricity in the US according to EPA EGRID Region.


2. The Environmental Impacts of Electricity Production

Nationally, the US power sector represents 41% of water withdrawals, 4% of water consumption, 36% of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gas emissions, 73% of sulfur oxides, and a significant proportion of nitrous oxides making it a critical target for sustainable policy and technology deployment. We use sophisticated grid modeling tools to quantify the environmental impacts of electricity production across a range of climatic, technical, regulatory, and economic scenarios. We also analyze opportunities to utilize waste streams (i.e. waste heat, wastewater effluent, etc.) to create value within the power industry.

Funded Projects

EAGER: Developing a Framework for Mitigating Environmental Externalities in the Power Sector to Maximize Regional Outcomes

  • Sponsor: National Science Foundation (Award number: 1632945)
  • PI: Dr. Kelly Sanders
  • Award Value: $300,000
  • Status: Active


3. The Climate-Electricity Nexus

While the impacts of carbon emitting energy consumption are affecting anthropogenic climate change, climate change is also affecting the way that consumers use energy and the efficiency with which our energy infrastructure operates. This thrust analyzes this tension between climate and the energy system.

Projects In Progress

  • Analyzing how temperature affects the efficiency of thermal power plants
  • Quantifying how climate change and urban heat island impact residential electricity usage.


4. The Food-Water-Energy Nexus

As growing economies get richer, their diets become more resource intensive, namely more meat intensive. Globally, agriculture accounts for one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, over half of which are associated with livestock cultivation. Growing demands of land, energy, and water due to shifts from plant-based diets to meat-based diets in growing economies will markedly change the energy, water, and nutrients required to meet global food demand.  Furthermore, increasing demand for resource intensive foods in growing economies will increase global greenhouse gas emissions without large-scale waste management interventions. This research area aims to assess the environmental impacts that will follow changes to regional food supplies and production systems from a systems perspective.

Images: Katherine Duffy, BA in the John C. Hench Division of Animation and Digital Arts, Class of 2016, University of Southern California