From The Editor | October 11, 2016

Are California's Utilities Their Own Worst Drought Enemies?

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga

In California, life for water and wastewater utilities isn’t easy. They are asked to find solutions for increasingly desperate drought conditions and to do so in ways that won’t make things worse. A new effort to keep them from contributing to climate change might not make things any easier for now, but it could make for a brighter future.

In late August, a bill sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and introduced by Senator Fran Pavley passed California State Legislature. Enrolled and presented to Governor Brown in early September, the bill “SB-1425 Water-Energy Nexus Registry,” would require the California Environmental Protection Agency to develop a registry for greenhouse gas emissions produced by water suppliers and water and wastewater treatment plants.

“According to Senator Pavley, this bill was inspired by our report ‘Clean Energy Opportunities in California’s Water Sector,’ which concluded that better data are needed to understand where opportunities lie for the water sector to contribute to California’s climate goals,” said Dr. Juliet Christian-Smith, a UCS climate scientist.

To illustrate the pollution that inspired the bill, Christian-Smith cited California Energy Commission findings that the water sector uses about 20 percent of California’s electricity and 30 percent of its natural gas to pump, treat, transport, deliver, and heat water.

In California as elsewhere, water and wastewater utilities either purchase electricity from a public enterprise or the wholesale market — in which case they have little say over how the energy is produced — or they buy it from independent providers or generate it themselves, which does allow them to choose where that power comes from.

“There is very little information about what energy sources are used to provide water services,” Christian-Smith said. “Therefore, it remains difficult to fully understand the climate change pollution associated with water use, since it varies greatly depending on whether clean energy or fossil fuels are used to provide water and wastewater services.”

If passed, the Water-Energy Nexus Registry bill would allow the California EPA to team with a nonprofit and administer the registry, hopefully collecting more detailed information on how much energy is being used to provide energy services and where that energy is coming from. By lauding those that use sustainable energy efficiently, it could also help to establish emissions baselines and encourage voluntary actions to increase energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In a state enduring pervasive drought, a measure like this may be more important than ever. It’s likely that the necessary groundwater pumping, water treatment, and recycling to keep total dryness at bay will only consume more energy in the near future.

“A key consideration for new water supply alternatives is the amount of energy required to obtain, treat, and delivery potable water,” said Christian-Smith. “In California, the most energy-intensive water supplies include large interbasin water transfers through the Colorado River Aqueduct and State Water Project and ocean water desalination.”

The simultaneous need for energy to foster new water supplies and the fact that using much of that energy creates greenhouse gasses has created a bit of a vicious cycle for California’s water sector. Luckily, it is within the sector’s own power to improve the nature of its water-energy nexus.

“Because many water and wastewater utilities have a significant amount of electricity purchasing power and own assets and infrastructure that could host renewable generation facilities or provide flexibility for the electricity grid, they are in a unique position to take advantage of the benefits associated with clean energy investments,” said Christian-Smith.

This bill comes as California works to reduce emissions and meet a commitment to derive 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Christian-Smith believes that water and wastewater utilities are poised to become a major part of the solution.

“Numerous studies and real-world experiences have found that many water and wastewater utilities can rely primarily on renewable sources of electricity,” she said, citing the Sonoma County Water Agency’s efforts to achieve a carbon-free water system last year. “If 25 percent of the electricity used by water and wastewater utilities came from renewables or was offset by energy efficiency, it would contribute 1,000 megawatts to California’s electricity supply.”