Another Reason We Need Energy Efficiency: Water Scarcity

It takes energy to treat and deliver water, and most of the time it takes water to create energy. This connection between water and energy has become clearer in recent months as IBM introduced its Smart Water offering (we know, we know, more “smart” tech), more U.S.-based desalination plants got the green light, and companies pushing water-related sensors, meters, and analytics testified before Congress.

Last week, the World Resources Institute issued a report examining the relationship between the two resources in greater detail, with a focus on the southeastern United States. WRI’s Eliot Metzger, a co-author of the study, told us that the stats they found in the southeast (two out of every three gallons of fresh water are used to produce energy, for example) can’t be extrapolated elsewhere, but provide a foundation for thinking about the role of water in all of the energy efficiency and smart grid talk going on right now.

“A really big part of it is education — people just don’t know that when they turn the faucet on, they’re using energy as well, not just water,” Metzger told us. Could that information be applied to the smart meter dashboards coming our way soon? “Absolutely, and it could really make a difference,” Metzger said. “I don’t know that water utilities are really ready yet for their own version of the smart grid, but if the smart electric grid provides a way for people to realize the connection between the two, that could be something.”

Bottom line? The water-energy equation is going to create a market for technologies that increase efficiency on both counts. “There are energy-water tradeoffs everywhere and if planners aren’t thinking of both then you’re running out of one or the other,” Metzger said.

Metzger also said that water scarcity may help drive adoption of renewable energy sources since such sources (namely solar and wind) require less water than natural gas or coal. This will be particularly important for land-locked areas like Denver, where desalination is not an option. Metzger also noted that, as is the case in many mountain regions, the Denver water utility relies on snow pack, and if, due to global warming, it melts earlier or faster than it traditionally has, the utility won’t be able to rely on the same steady supply it has used as the basis of all of its planning. “What does that mean for scheduling and water supply for a growing population? It’s a tough problem and since they don’t have the desalination option, they’ll have to explore water efficiency,” he said.

But while utilities need to act now, few are prepared to do so. “Water and electric utilities have planning templates that they’ve been using for a long time,” Metzger said. “Typically they look ahead and plan for the next 5-10 years, considering population growth, supply, demand, that sort of thing. But climate change will affect those supplies and I think a lot of the water utilities at least are going to be hit with some surprises.”