19 July 2012

Siamese synergies: water and energy

Editor's note: James Workman taught "Unlocking the Real Worth of Water" as a visiting professor at Wesleyan University last semester. He told his students that they -- like all people -- needed to be "water resource managers" because water allocations are increasingly driven by subjective individual values, not top-down planing. The students addressed these ideas from different perspectives (local utility, energy/water nexus, and water and food trade); each choose one essay to post here. Please tell them what they got right or wrong.

Ben Gottesman writes...

The Edmonston Pumping Station pushes water 2,000 feet over the Tehachapi Mountains and into Los Angeles at 142,000 gallons per minute, a feat unrivaled any other water system in the world. The annual energy expenditure to transport this water would be enough to power a third of California’s households. This is story of the big engine that could, but shouldn’t.

The State Water Project was a gambit. Water at any cost, regardless of the energy expenditure. It epitomized the triumph of irrationality over reason, confidence instead of doubt in our ability to engineer over nature, natural security and gravity.

Shapers of American infrastructure are starting to evolve past this mentality. However, a key step in this evolution is missing. Policy makers still fail to recognize the intimate connection between water and energy, even though there are plenty of facts confirming that they should.

Hydroelectric plants create 14.5% of California’s electricity, yet 20% of California’s energy goes to supplying water. The cost of electricity accounts for 80% of water utility bills, yet generating energy consumes 20% of water not used for agriculture. We are spending too much time tackling each issue independently. Such singular thinking pushes us away from achieving sustainability because these conjoined twins do not always have mutual interests. What helps one may hurt the other.

California policy-makers have been helping energy in big ways lately. They recently installed a carbon cap-and-trade program in hopes to trim greenhouse emissions back down to 1990 levels. Pair that with feed-in tariffs that transform formerly unfeasible alternative energies into realistic and attractive possibilities, and just watch how speedily we chase down change. And how speedily we run out of water.
By 2020 California wants a third of its energy to come from alternative energy sources, up from 11% today. Renewables may be cleaner than coal and natural gas, but on average, they consume many times more water than conventional sources. Right now California depends on natural gas, which consumes less water than any other energy source, to generate about half of its electricity. Geothermal, which produces more than twice the energy of solar and wind combined in California, is expected to grow dramatically under these new policies. But geothermal consumes eight times as much water as natural gas, and represents the rule, rather than the exception, in terms of these thirsty renewables.

California will be using more water to produce its energy, while still stuck in its energy-intensive water infrastructure. This means that with an increase in water-intensive alternative energy sources, the state will be forfeiting tremendous amounts of water (in the form of energy) by having to muscle water into the state. Energy production already consumes a fifth of California’s water not used for agriculture. How much more water is California willing to lose?

Or maybe we should be asking how much California is willing to save. California recently adopted a carbon cap-and-trade program, where companies can earn tradable permits for cutting emissions, which they can sell to companies who fail to meet the cap. Water utilities and farming irrigation districts should be included into this program because consuming less water requires less energy, which means less carbon coughed into the sky. If a utility can reduce the demand for water, it should be rewarded with carbon credits.

Focusing on demand is the only viable strategy when California is simultaneously trying to attain cleaner energy at the cost of water, while still diverting 20% of its energy to supplying water. The only way to have both is to cultivate a system where these Siamese synergies are recognized and accounted for. Including water utilities and farming irrigation districts into the carbon cap-and-trade program, which will begin in January of 2013, would be an innovative way to start off this much needed reunion.

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