Time to get water and energy utilities on the same planet

Kate Zerrenner

The world as we knew it, a world where we built seemingly permanent models for energy and water distribution and consumption, is no more.

As World Water Week kicks off in Stockholm this weekend, we must begin to fundamentally rethink how we view water and its strong connection to energy. And to do so, we must begin a long-overdue conversation on asymmetries in how the energy and water sectors are priced, regulated and managed.

Today, it’s no longer possible for each sector to just talk about the other. They must work together, and they can only do so once they’re on a more level playing field.

We save energy, waste water

Many electricity providers today are large, investor-owned companies that operate in deregulated regional, national and global energy markets. By contrast, the water sector tends to be run by small public utilities that operate in highly regulated markets at the local level.

It helps explain why energy efficiency is a central part of the energy sector, while inefficient use of water seems to be the norm.

Energy is clearly priced and there is an awareness of pricing in the market and among customers, especially at the industrial level.

Water, on the other hand, is typically not something we worry about: Not only is customer awareness of water prices low, but the way water is priced in the United States is not reflective of its true value.

This has, in turn, created a warped view of water being a seemingly endless and cheap resource. It helps explain why energy efficiency is a central part of the energy sector, while inefficient use of water seems to be the norm.

This disparity lies at the heart of what makes the energy-water nexus so challenging.

California drought case in point

For example, Southern California has a very high water-associated energy demand because its water has to be pumped in from Northern California – a problem that could intensify as northern water sources are constrained by the state’s historic drought.

As climate change exacerbates water shortages, particularly in areas that are already water-stressed, more cities may be forced to look outside of their own districts for water resources and increase energy demand overall.

This would, in turn, increase demand for water and create a vicious cycle in the energy-water nexus spiral.

A more balanced, or symmetric, approach to a city’s water and energy needs could help maximize efficiencies in both sectors and help us manage scarce existing resources.

San Antonio has win-win solution

The City of San Antonio offers a good example of effective energy-water co-management.

The San Antonio Water System has won numerous awards for its energy savings. The water utility’s most innovative project to date is Dos Rios, a combined sewage treatment and biogas plant that reduces harmful air pollution while generating revenue from the sale of biogas. CPS Energy, the city’s municipally-owned electric utility, even installed a large, 20-megawatt solar farm at the facility to further cut harmful pollution and water use.

Each sector must view the other as a vital component of their collective futures: Water is an energy resource and energy is a water resource. Equalizing the way we regulate and price the two is a step toward approaching these massive problems in a more systematic way.

I hope the leaders who gather at this year’s World Water Week conference would agree. 

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