March 19

When Water and Energy Collide 67738


The following was saved from the old website, just in case anyone was looking for it (with the help of

Posted By Elizabeth Cutright 

Last week, I discussed some positive changes in the green building movement—specifically USGB’s decision to expand the water efficiency requirements under its LEED certification program. As I see it, whenever there is an acknowledgement of the interdependent relationship between water and energy, we all win.

This week,’s Daniel Gross posted an article on “extreme energy”—energy sources that negatively impact our natural resources and bring with them the ever-present risk of environmental catastrophe. I think we can all agree that the current situation in the Gulf of Mexico is a perfect example of extreme energy gone wrong.

But the oil spill in the Gulf also exemplifies what happens when the relationship between energy and water goes sour. It may take 7% of the world’s energy supply to collect, treat, and distribute potable water, but it takes almost a half-gallon of water to produce 1 kWh of energy from fossil fuels. (Biofuels fair even worse: It takes about 4 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of biofuel, and it can take upwards of 2,500 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of ethanol). 

Why is all this water needed? Water is required at every level of energy production, including crude oil pumping, pollutant removal from power plant exhaust, steam for turbines, fossil fuel residue flushing, and power plant cooling.  

But water is not just an essential element in the production, treatment, and distribution of energy—it’s also one of its most vulnerable components, especially when it comes to extreme energy sources. Bitumen extraction from Canada’s tar sands and natural gas fracking both have the potential to pollute local groundwater sources. And deep sea oil drilling … well, deep sea oil drilling carries with it the risk that a pipeline or pump will fail and a massive oil spill will result.

Which brings us back to the situation in the Gulf and what it means for water efficiency and conservation. It seems to me that when it comes to fossil fuels, water takes a one-two punch in terms of water use and the risk to our water resources.

So what’s the solution? Increased efficiency, both in the water and energy sectors, is a good first step. But we must also make a concerted effort to move away from these extreme energy sources towards new options—options that will not endanger or drain our water resources.


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