Energy And Water Utilities’ Unique Perspectives Uncover Joint Cost-Saving Solutions

This commentary originally appeared on EDF's Energy Exchange blog.

In the past, I’ve written a lot about the inherent connection between energy and water use and the need for co-management of energy-water planning. Most of the energy we use requires copious amounts of water to produce, and most of the water we use requires a considerable amount of energy to treat and transport. Despite this inherent connection, it’s actually uncommon to see energy and water utilities collaborating to identify best practices to save energy and water and even lower costs. Think of it this way: If energy and water utilities worked together, their unique perspectives could uncover joint cost-saving solutions, customers would save more money and utilities could share data to better understand their holistic energy-water footprint.

Identifying why there is a lack of collaboration and how to overcome these barriers was the motivation behind the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s (ACEEE’s) recent report.  The report goes beyond citing discrepancies, though, and provides solutions for energy and water utilities to create better, more resource-efficient programs for themselves and their customers.

The report highlights a number of ways U.S. energy and water utilities have collaborated to identify mutually-beneficial energy and water savings. It lists successful energy and water utility programs from a variety of different sectors, including residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural and municipal.

One energy-water success story the report features comes from my own backyard, Austin, Texas. Traditionally, it’s difficult to incentivize energy and water savings in multifamily dwellings because residents only rent the property. Examples of multifamily dwellings include apartment buildings, townhouses and duplexes. While the tenant pays the utility bill, the landlord is the one responsible for long-term efficiency improvements. To fix this split incentive, the City of Austin created the Multifamily Energy and Water Efficiency Program, which provides multifamily dwelling owners with holistic energy and water efficiency evaluations, rebates and other incentives to conserve both resources. The program is a collaboration of Austin Water Utility, Austin Energy and Texas Gas Service.

It’s important to note that without technology, these savings would not be realized. As the ACEEE report suggests, smart electric meters – devices that enable two-way communication to and from the utility and the customer – are lifting the veil, so to speak, by allowing utilities to understand how and when customers use energy and uncover opportunities for conservation. Smart water meters, on the other hand, are much less common than smart electric meters and the technology is not as advanced.  But these smart water meters are key to unlocking holistic energy-water savings.

Source: Argonne National Laboratory

Pecan Street Inc., a ‘smart grid living laboratory’ based in Austin, Texas, is one of the only smart grid demonstration projects in the country working to bridge this water information gap.  By installing smart water meters on homes of willing participants, residents can access water usage data down to the hour-by-hour level, giving utilities clear oversight to detect leaks and even theft.  The goal is to share important lessons learned with other utilities and municipalities and spur further innovation in the smart water meter sector.  Of course, some utilities are already ahead of the curve.

In April of this year, the City of Davis in California launched a cloud-based, city-wide Water Conservation Program that provides its 14,000 residential customers with a dual billing and usage data platform. The technology provider, WaterSmart Software, also sends participants personalized Home Water Reports that display household water use, compare household usage to other similar-sized homes and suggest conservation tips.

By breaking down the silos between different utilities, the cities of Austin and Davis overcame many barriers that joint programs face and established programs that unlock all-inclusive energy-water savings. These success stories are just some of the examples documented in ACEEE’s report. It’s clear there are numerous opportunities for utilities to create more joint programs to help save both energy and water. To increase collaboration, the report recommends:

  • Beginning a dialogue about opportunities between the two (or more) utilities and establishing relationships.
  • Creating utility partnerships for joint messaging.
  • Collaborating to identify unique funding opportunities.
  • Developing a format to add energy savings to water programs and vice versa.
  • Working with energy regulators to establish credit for embedded energy savings from water efficiency programs and vice versa.
  • Creating an articulate and clearly-communicated strategy with measurable goals to help clarify priorities and cement roles.

EDF applauds ACEEE for researching and summarizing how different energy and water utilities are working together to reveal the best practices to maximize resource savings. In the future, we hope utilities and regulators take the report’s recommendations under consideration to create more joint programs in Texas and beyond.

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