Landmark Report from DOE Highlights New Challenges, Opportunities for the Energy-Water Nexus

Source: Department of Energy

Source: Department of Energy

If we can send a man to the moon, we can ensure the viability of essential resources – such as energy and water – in an unpredictable future affected by climate change.

A recent report released by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), The Water-Energy Nexus: Challenges and Opportunities, attempts to plan for this uncertainty by providing a landmark review of the US energy-water nexus – the first report of its kind from DOE.

Although there were many compelling findings in this 250-plus page report, for me there were two compelling themes worth noting: 1) energy and water are fundamentally intertwined, but so is land in this nexus, and 2) the Federal Government has an important role to play in providing support and leadership to the entities that govern these resources so that they may begin planning for the effects of climate change more holistically and collaboratively.

The energy, water…and land nexus

The DOE report affirms that the energy and water sectors are highly interconnected, but it also sheds light on a third component that’s becoming increasingly difficult to isolate from the energy-water nexus: land.

Take a vegetable farm for example: the crops need water to live, while the water needs land for water-capture purposes, and energy (transportation fuel, irrigation, etc.) is required to work the land, while land is needed for energy infrastructure, such as transmission lines, that delivers electricity to the farm. This and other examples illustrate how critically connected these resources are to each other and thus the need for a more integrated approach to planning for the future of all three.

Such a complex set of challenges can be difficult to plan for, but well-developed methodologies are available to help mitigate this uncertainty. Systems and standards, such as insurance, building codes, and other regulations, have developed based on past experiences. But they must adopt new practices that take climate change into consideration. One of the best ways to do so is through recognizing the interconnections between these three sectors, and the rippling effects they can have on each other that extend beyond their regional influence. For example, a drought that affects farmers in California could potentially impact nearly half of all US fruits, veggies, and nuts.

These issues are fundamentally intertwined, yet policymaking and utilities are not. Careful decision-making at all levels must be aware of and engaged with their counterparts, lest significant opportunities for efficiency are lost. Better integration at the operations and policy levels could lead to compounded benefits. In reality, all three of these resources have the choice to either compete for importance or collaborate for efficiency.

Climate change is unpredictable, but uncertainty is nothing new for DOE

One of the DOE report’s basic assumptions is that climate change will impact both the energy and water sectors, but to what degree is uncertain.

One particular challenge is that the impact of climate change on the energy and water sectors is not consistent across the US; there are regional variations based on climate, population density, and the type of resources in use. I’ve talked about a drier Southwest before, but the report also notes impacts related to hydropower in the Pacific Northwest, flooding in the Mississippi river watershed, droughts and heat waves in the Southeast, and tropical storms in the Northeast.

To make matters worse, energy and water policymaking is highly fragmented—federal, state, and local entities all play a role. Water, regulated at the state and local levels, is further disjointed in that it has several purposes, such as power generation, agriculture, city use, and recreation. Furthermore, modeling and data collection is fragmented across government entities in order to meet the needs of different regulators. Many climate and impact assessments look at a 100-year projection, while energy and water planners use a five to 30 year time horizon, creating a gap in current modeling.

The good news is that DOE is intimately familiar with planning for an uncertain future. It houses all seventeen National Laboratories, where long-term government scientific and technological missions are carried out, and has extensive capabilities for multi-system modeling, essential for addressing shortfalls in uncertain landscapes. Additionally, it already has substantial experience in modeling current and future water demands for the energy sector, albeit on a more regional focus. For example, one current project is bringing together energy planners and water managers from the Western States, including Texas, to start mapping water stress implications on transmission planning across the region.

DOE, in coordination with universities, industry, and other relevant federal and state agencies, can piece together these fragments for a more holistic, national modeling effort. But according to the DOE report, it would require significant leadership at DOE to reach the level of integration and connectivity needed to overcome this fragmented approach.

The time for action has come

Coordinating energy and water (and land) policy will lead to more robust, streamlined policies. DOE can model, help demonstrate, and test new technologies that directly affect water use in the energy sector, and energy use in the water sector. Technologies like renewable energy for desalination or smart meters for water are prime examples. No model or data set will meet the need of every participant in these sectors, but robust data and innovation will lead to more comprehensive efficiencies across the nexus. With integration, we will begin to see transformative policies emerge.

We have a window of opportunity. The energy sector is on the verge of modernizing the grid and altering the way utilities do business. Water should be part of that transformation. This window will not stay open forever, but if the stakeholders take advantage of it now they could dramatically alter the way we think of and use energy and water in the future.

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