For Water and Energy, "It's Complicated."
Inextricably linked, unavoidably interconnected and, at times, conflicted and conflagrant, the relationship between energy and water is the ultimate duality—polarized and indivisible. Those of us working in the fields of water resource management and/or energy efficiency and reliability know that while our concerns are often interchangeable and our challenges similar, we nevertheless find ourselves operating in two separate spheres, focusing only on our own specific challenges and demands and rarely glancing up to take a look at the big picture.
An important part of water resource management involves understanding not just how much water you have, but where that water is going. It’s unlikely that most people really understand that it takes a lot of water to generate electricity, and that—conversely—it takes a lot of electricity to deliver the water that flows so easily out of your tap. When you start to think about the energy and resources involved in activities and products that occur far from the faucet, it only takes a few moments to grasp just how much water is imbedded in everything we do, everything we eat, and every product we make or buy.
When you run that tap or flush that toilet, you may be able to estimate how many gallons you’re using, but how many kilowatts are going down the drain? The question is not far-fetched when you consider that, “between 2 and 3% of the world’s energy consumption is used to pump and treat water for urban residents and industry” (http://watergy.org). In the US, the EPA estimates that about 3% of the nation’s energy resources are tied to water collection, treatment, and delivery, while across the country, regional and seasonal challenges impact the relationship between water and energy on a more local level: In New York City, one-third of the city’s energy bill goes to pump, treat, deliver, and collect water while in California, California Energy Commission estimatesindicate that 20% of the State’s energy is tied up in water resource management.
The complicated relationship between energy and water is a cruel ying-yang, a never-ending tug-of-war between supply and demand, with increases or decreases on one side, triggering equal pressure on the other. For example, the water cycle (collection, treatment, and delivery) requires energy—often in the form of fossil fuels. As a result, greenhouse gas emissions increase, adversely impacting fragile ecosystems and diminishing or compromising local water supplies. To make up the difference, more extensive water collection and treatment systems are needed—think desalination and miles of interstate pipelines—and these alternatives require even more energy. Power production requires water—about 25 gallons per 1 kWh (http://spectrum.ieee.org/energy) depending on your power source—increasing preasure on the water cycle, GHG’s rise, and the cycle begins anew.
While all water conservation efforts should be applauded, as I’ve said many times before, it’s not enough to throw in a couple of low-flow toilets and call it a day. What we need is a broader effort that focuses on the interdependency of all our resources.
Two recent efforts to elevate and clarify the water/energy nexus are an encouraging sign that the balkanization of water interests and energy efficiency concerns is finally starting to thaw. Over the summer, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and the Alliance for Water Efficiency published a white paper focusing on the complicated and codependent relationship between water and energy, along with a set of solutions and strategies to increase efficiency in both realms. The white paper, entitled “A Blueprint for Action and Policy Agenda”, addresses three categories of interest: policy/codes, research, and programs.
Meanwhile, following on the heels of the publication of “A Blueprint for Action and Policy Agenda,” in July, Senator Jeff Bingaman (D–NM) introduced The Energy and Water Integration Act of 2011 (S.1343) for consideration by the full Senate. At its core, the bill outlines a set of processes that are designed to illuminate and facilitate the relationship between water efficiency and energy efficiency. The actions proposed by the bill include: assessments on water-related energy consumption, an energy-water research and development roadmap, an energy-water clean technology grant program, a rural water utilities energy and water efficiency program, and a comprehensive water use and energy savings study.
Because of the delicate balance between water and energy, savings at one end results in conservation at the other, but we all know that when there’s disturbance in this interplay, inefficiency takes hold, and we find ourselves faced with wrangling substandard results from a costly and wasteful delivery system. Additionally, until water and energy customers begin to pay the true cost for the resources they are consuming, waste will continue to trump conservation, and true harmony between water resource management and energy efficiency will remain an unattainable dream.
Author's Bio: Elizabeth Cutright is the Editor of Water Efficiency magazine and Distributed Energy magazine