Hydroelectric power provides nearly 15 percent of California’s electricity, but in the face of a drought that has lasted three years and counting, utilities have to look for power elsewhere.

It’s not just hydro power that suffers in a drought though – our energy system puts many demands on our water supply.

Local governments in states around the country are putting restrictions and prohibitions on fracking because the gas and oil companies are competing with residents for limited water.

In Australia, a country that is also facing severe droughts, coal plants have had to reduce electricity production to protect municipal water. Plans to expand coal power in Asia are worrying observers who see shortages on the horizon.

And nuclear power plants like the Millstone plant in Waterford, Connecticut that depend on vast amounts of water to cool their reactors have had to shut down when water temperatures climb too high. On top of that, rising sea levels are putting coastal nuclear plants like Turkey Point in Miami, Florida at risk: in a few decades the plant could find itself sitting on an island, a dangerous proposition in the wake of Fukushima.

Until recently, water has been one of the ignored components of power generation, but that’s changing. In 2013, the World Bank launched its Thirsty Energy program to develop solutions to electricity demands on global water supplies. The U.S. Department of Energy followed suit by releasing a similar initiative in 2014.

Just as electricity generation requires water; the pumping, treatment, and heating of water requires electricity too. Water and wastewater operations account for over five percent of all electricity used in the US.

It’s clear we can no longer manage our water and energy separately, but best practices haven’t been widely publicized or adopted. Senator Lisa Murkowski cited the lack of clear guidelines as a barrier to better managing these resources. Only three states – Arizona, California, and Nevada – have passed laws that provide procedures for the use of water for electricity.

The Johnson Foundation’s 2013 report, Building Resilient Utilities is one of the few practical guides to embarking on an integrated water and energy system. The report uncovers some creative solutions that utilities could implement, including:

* Using wastewater heat and/or on-site renewable energy to generate heat and electricity at water treatment plants
* Expanding the use of reclaimed water to cool power plants, thereby avoiding stress on potable water for communities
* Establishing partnerships between electricity and water utilities for the development of green infrastructure programs
* Providing incentives for combined heat & power systems (CHP) in federal and state law
* Decentralizing power and energy at the neighborhood level to make utilities more resilient to climate change impacts
* Updating environmental regulations and removing financial barriers to give utilities more flexibility in adopting new technologies

A good first step, according to the report, would have water auditors visit power plants and energy auditors visit water facilities to make recommendations. Progress is possible if these historically disparate industries begin communicating with each other.

That’s just what the Oregon Association of Clean Water did in 2010 and 2011. They worked with the local power provider to offer training programs on energy for their employees, resulting in substantial energy and cost savings at their facilities.

A concerted effort to shift the nation’s energy supply to renewable energy would also protect our water supplies. Wind, solar PV, and dry-cooled solar thermal use minuscule amounts of water compared to fossil and nuclear energy.

Now that we see the connections between water and energy, let’s work with utilities and governments to build an integrated, resilient, and sustainable system that safeguards our resources.



Overview of the water-energy nexus in the United States, National Conference of State Legislatures.

Water Needs Power; Power Needs Water, KQED

Ensuring the Resiliency of Our Future Water and Energy Systems, U.S. Department of Energy

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