As persistent rain dampened this year's first weekend of South By Southwest in Austin, I couldn’t help but think of the terrible drought that plagued Texas for years. Just a few short years ago, my dad had to sell his motorboat because there was no water in nearby Lake Travis. Then floods pummeled many parts of Texas, and some of those same lakes are full for the first time in 15 years. And, it’s not just Texas watching the pendulum swing from historic drought to heavy rains.
Following a five-year drought, California’s winter was one of the snowiest and wettest on record. Plus, regions of the Southeast and Northeast have experienced unprecedented droughts recently.
Many fear these extremes are the new normal as climate models suggest drought and floods will be intensified under a changing climate. This data supports why it’s critical to ensure the stability of our future water supply. Fortunately, there is an inextricable link between energy and water that presents untapped opportunities to conserve water.
Known as the energy-water nexus, the link refers to the water embedded in energy and the energy embedded in water. Consider the amount of water it takes to produce and distribute electricity. As well, consider the amount of electricity used to treat, pump, and distribute water. And, while many clean energy resources are virtually water-free, traditional sources — such as coal, nuclear, and natural gas — require a significant amount of water to generate power.
By making strategic choices to maximize energy-water efficiencies, we can help protect our supplies in advance of our next drought. Here are three ways that work:
1. Encourage water utilities to create comprehensive, strategic energy plans: Water utilities need a lot of power to treat and distribute water, as well as operate their facilities, which results in high energy costs. Consequently, high energy use typically connotes high water use. In other words, these utilities are using water to create water. And, since the energy manager is not the one responsible for making bottom-line organizational decisions, there is oftentimes disconnect between departments within a utility.
Creating an Energy Management Plan (EMP), or an organization-wide strategy for energy use, can streamline efforts and identify opportunities and tactics to bring down costs. The EMP is a holistic business approach that puts all of the utility’s departments on track to meet ambitious efficiency goals. The EMP often includes benchmarking to establish an energy baseline, identification of high-energy-use pain points in the system, or even creating a team that will ensure the plan is carried out.
Moreover, the EMP could lead to pairing up with electric utilities to maximize available efficiency opportunities and resources. California is a trailblazer in this type of partnership.
2. Increase the use of smart technology: Because of the energy-water nexus, the amount of power every home uses has a specific level of “water intensity,” and, in turn, the water a home uses has a certain level of “energy intensity.” Think of it on a retail level: One’s clothes dryer needs power to run, but that power typically needs water to be created in the first place. On the flip side, it takes a lot of energy to treat and transport water for home irrigation systems.
A recent study from Environmental Defense Fund and Pecan Street gathered first-of-its-kind granular data on the energy and water use of a group of Austin homes. The study revealed some fascinating findings like climate and weather have a big impact on a home’s water footprint: that freezer in your garage is guzzling water, and homes with solar panels saw a nearly 80 percent drop in water intensity.
Smart technology made these findings possible. If utilities want their customers to efficiently manage water use, their customers need the tools to better understand it. Installing smart meters — for both electricity and water — is an important step in the right direction.
3. Match water-stressed areas with renewable energy: As noted above, coal, nuclear, and natural gas are very thirsty electricity sources. Wind and solar PVs’ water use, on the other hand, is insignificant.
Strategic placement of renewable energy could get the biggest water-savings bang for one’s buck. A recent study funded by Environmental Defense Fund, in collaboration with the Texas Army National Guard (TXARNG), mapped water stress and the potential for solar, wind, and geothermal energy at 60 of National Guard’s Texas facilities.
By overlaying the water data with renewable energy, the lowest-hanging fruit become clear. For example, Fort Bliss Readiness Center in El Paso has both the highest solar potential and the most extreme category of future water stress. Therefore, Fort Bliss is an ideal candidate for protecting water supplies by installing solar panels.
This kind of mapping could be done throughout the U.S., and the data could help inform more comprehensive energy decisions. In the case of TXARNG, that could mean allowing resources to go to other essentials like training and equipment.
Texas is certainly not the only state to experience drought woes during the past decade, and, with climate change, there’s no doubt that we can expect more drought (and at extreme levels) in the mid- and long-term. By encouraging water utilities to make a strategic energy plan, increasing the use of smart technology, and matching water-stressed regions with clean energy resources, we can take steps now to save our water later.
Kate Zerrenner is manager, energy-water initiatives, Environmental Defense Fund. Zerrenner leads EDF’s Texas and national energy-water nexus efforts. She received her B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin, and master's degrees from the University of Glasgow in Comparative Politics and Johns Hopkins University in International Energy and Environmental Policy and Economics. For more information, follow Kate on Twitter @KateZerrenner or visit www.EDF.org.
Image credit:"Forboding Skies," FHG Photo © 2007, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/