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Updating Sustainability

The concept of sustainable development came into public awareness in 1987 when the Brundtland Commission presented a report entitled Our Common Future. The commission was convened by the United Nations to address the depletion of natural resources. The report it produced coined the term “sustainable development” and defined it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

One of the key components of sustainable development is the unification of environment and development, a concept advanced by the Brundtland Report. In keeping with this idea the National Science Foundation (NSF) released a call for proposals to explore the nexus of these areas. Dr. Liem Tran’s project seeks to do just that.

According to Tran, most contemporary sustainability assessments evaluate water availability separately from the interconnection with human infrastructure and development across geographic regions. His Joint Directed Research Development (JDRD) project proposes to use network analysis and graph theory to link these different areas, capturing their interaction at a number of levels.

“When you produce electricity, you consume water. If you use a lot of water in one place and something happens to the water, for example a drought, that will affect the electricity production,” said Tran. “How does that effect spread throughout the electricity network, the water network and the food network?”

Tran’s JDRD team includes Dr. Hyun Kim, an assistant professor in the department of geography at the University of Tennessee. Kim specializes in the network analysis which Tran’s project will use to create a scalable methodology for observing these system interactions.

“Consider the example of population increase. You then have an increasing demand for food. How might that affect the water and energy consumption across various sectors and/or regions? That kind of information will be capture by our network analysis,” said Tran.

“We should know how to respond quickly to those situations,” added Kim. “Previous research didn’t touch on these things but we can by creating this cross-scale framework and ultimately make a nice practical picture for applying water or electric policy.”

Tran and Kim are working on models for a regional scale, but plan to create a flexible system adaptable to a variety of confines. Their Oak Ridge National Laboratory partner Dr. Ryan McManamay will use the methods and results generated by the JDRD to study the footprint of urban energy systems on river networks.

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