Why water and energy policies do mix, or should

Why water and energy policies do mix, or should

Nuclear power plant image by bagalute via Flickr

When I tell people that the best way to conserve energy is to conserve water, I am often faced with a confused response. I’m not surprised, really. Energy and water policies are rarely discussed in the same forum. For a long time, we’ve overlooked the inextricable relationship between water and energy use. Coal, nuclear and natural gas plants use enormous amounts of steam to create electricity. Producing all of that steam requires 190,000 million gallons of water per day, or 39 percent of all freshwater withdrawals in the nation.

Connection between energy and water

The longstanding division between energy and water considerations is particularly evident in the case of energy and water management. These resources are fundamentally intertwined: Energy is used to secure, deliver, treat and distribute water, while water is used (and often degraded) to develop, process and deliver energy. Despite the inherent connection between the two sectors, energy and water planners routinely make decisions that affect one another without adequately understanding the scientific or policy complexities of the other sector. This miscommunication often hides joint opportunities for conservation to the detriment of budgets, efficiency, the environment and public health, and inhibits both sectors from fully accounting for the financial, environmental or social effects they have on each other.

This lack of collaboration between energy and water planners is especially dire considering Texas is in midst of an energy shortage exacerbated by the multi-year drought. Without adequate planning, we someday could have to choose between keeping our lights on and turning on the faucet.

Need for efficiency

Energy and water infrastructure upgrades are expensive, and this reality continues to stifle the transition to a more water- and energy-efficient system. Energy and water policies at both the federal and state levels were developed to support existing electricity generation and water technology, but conditions have changed dramatically, and the policies haven’t kept up.

Competitive markets, new technologies, resource constraints and increasing greenhouse gas emissions are all part of the new planning reality, but they are not adequately addressed when energy and water planning are carried out in silos. At the most basic level, even the language between the two sectors does not match up, making it difficult for energy and water planners to speak to each other effectively. But don’t think this lets regulators and policymakers off the hook.

Policy struggles

There have been calls for joint water and energy resource management. In 2011, the U.S. Energy and Water Research Integration Act was formulated “to ensure consideration of water intensity in the Department of Energy’s energy research, development, and demonstration programs to help guarantee efficient, reliable, and sustainable delivery of energy and water resources.” Although it was not enacted into law, this bill put the energy-water nexus on the national stage. Later, in the 2013 Texas legislative session, Sen. Kirk Watson nearly passed a bill (Senate Bill 199) that would have required electricity generators to report their water use and needs annually. While some lawmakers have a clear vision to address energy and water needs together, we lack a consensus and broad understanding among stakeholders to make that vision a reality.

To compound the problem, energy and water resources are managed at multiple levels: local, regional, statewide and national. Having these different planning and regulatory levels means more opportunities for miscommunication or misalignment of policy goals from each sector. Addressing energy and water on a more coordinated basis could help overcome language barriers between the two and ensure that each resource is more adequately protected.

Energy and water management is too crucial to be upheld by disjointed decision making that doesn’t look at the whole picture. While it may be difficult to break down the longstanding separation between energy and water management, doing so will reveal novel conservation strategies to ensure Texans -- or anyone else for that matter -- never have to choose between keeping their lights on or running water to meet their daily needs.

Editor’s note: This is the first entry in a multi-part series by Environmental Defense Fund about the energy-water nexus. It originally appeared on EDF’s Energy Exchange blog.

Nuclear power plant image by bagalute via Flickr