The Link Between Water and Energy in California – And Why It Matters

KHK pictureTomorrow is World Water Day and this year’s theme is the “energy-water nexus,” the critical, interdependent relationship between water and energy. The generation and delivery of almost all types of energy requires water and, conversely, treating and transporting clean water requires energy. In fact, water-related activities, such as treatment and distribution, account for almost 20 percent of California’s total electricity use. A disruption in access to one of these precious resources can have a detrimental effect on access to the other, creating a vicious cycle that unsettles our way of life.

The Challenges

Unfortunately, California is learning the hard way about the inextricable link between water and energy. The Golden State is having major water shortage problems and despite some much needed rain a few weeks ago, the state still remains in a severe drought. In fact, this past winter in California was one of the driest on record.

The drought has had perceptible effects on California’s energy production, substantially decreasing hydroelectricity levels, compared to 2011. Due to the decrease in hydroelectricity in the state, which usually makes up about 10% of California’s fuel mix, the state has been forced to increasingly rely on dirty, unsustainable fossil fuels, and energy costs have increased. Energy generation from traditional forms of power, such as natural gas, nuclear power, and coal, are not without their own water demands as well.

The effects of the drought and its impacts on California’s energy mix are felt most by local farmers, who rely heavily on both water and energy to grow their crops. The California Farm Water Coalition estimates that farm production could fall by over $3.5 billion as a result of the drought. Farmers’ electricity bills are also expected to rise, much like they did during the drought of 2007 to 2009, which resulted in $1.7 billion in additional costs on energy bills. And these costs don’t stop at the state lines; California is the biggest agricultural producer in the U.S. and the drought is poised to drive up food prices across the country, from coffee, to milk, to vegetables.

The Opportunities

The close relationship between water and energy can amplify negative consequences, especially when climate change, which increases the likelihood and frequency of extreme weather events like droughts, is factored into the equation. On the other hand, managing water and energy usage together can create synergistic efficiency improvements. This has been demonstrated by initiatives like AT&T Water, a joint effort between EDF and AT&T to identify concurrent opportunities to reduce water and energy use in buildings, while also saving money. Based on these findings, AT&T is rolling out a plan that will achieve 150 million gallons of water savings by the end of 2015. Joint planning and decision-making like such as this can lead to innovative conservation strategies to ensure that Californians never have to choose between keeping the lights on and water running from the tap.

California is already taking steps in the right direction. The Golden State has an impressive record when it comes to promoting renewable energy, especially solar energy, which uses little to no water. In fact, a few weeks ago, California broke the record for installed solar generation.

World Water Day is a great time to reflect on the two invaluable resources that we depend on in our daily life. Importantly, it also kicks off a year of events surrounding the energy-water nexus and the many issues and opportunities that it presents. Like Henry Ford once said, “coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, working together is success.” Water and energy polices are more successful and effective when they work together rather than apart.

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