Energy-Water Nexus

For a number of years, environmentalists, scientists, and social scientists have pointed to an extremely strong link between energy and water. Energy delivery requires water along the entire supply chain, from the mining and production of fuel sources to cooling for power plants. Similarly, water delivery is heavily dependent on energy in the extraction, treatment, and distribution of the water supply as well as the treatment of wastewater.

According to the most recent date from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), about 410 billion gallons of water are withdrawn from U.S. water sources every day. Of those withdrawals, thermoelectric power generation is the number one use of freshwater at roughly 201 billion gallons per day, or 49% of the total. USGS notes, however, that a substantial amount of this water is returned to surface sources making it available for other uses. Irrigation for agriculture is the second-most common use for freshwater withdrawals at 31%. Industrial purposes, including manufacturing, represent about 4%.

The energy-water nexus is fast becoming a major concern for Congress and federal agencies, as reflected in recent studies released by the Department of Energy and the Congressional Research Service. In 2014, legislation introduced by Senators Murkowski and Wyden (S 1971) directed the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy to establish a committee to coordinate and streamline federal energy-water activities.

Most people talk about the energy-water nexus at the problem level, stating that there is a correlation between the two and increasing demands for both energy and water will lead to greater shortages of both in the future. With so much interest generated and so many stakeholders impacted, one would think that the solutions to solve this issue would be flowing in. Sadly, this is not the case.

The National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) has found many entities are interested and concerned about the energy-water nexus but few are doing anything. For example, the federal government has a designated water-energy team (the WET team) that is still in its nascent stage and won’t be funded until FY 2016. Recently on Capitol Hill Congress held a hearing on the nexus of energy and water, but a legislative solution is far from being enacted. Outside of D.C., because water is such a regional issue, many private stakeholders have only been focused on their own areas.

To help bring the energy-water nexus into better focus for our association, we’ve identified six principles that NEMA is committed to pursuing: 

  • Water efficiency— conservation activities without causing system failures or health-related concerns for end user,
  • Energy efficiency— electricity saving measures for water utilities through a more efficient supporting electrical infrastructure,
  • Measurement – performance-oriented metrics for both the power and water industries,
  • Policy -the need for an integrated network of federal, state, and local policy solutions,
  • Standards and Certification—suggestions for how standards can be identified updated and harmonized across industry segments, and
  • Resilience— what can be done to make the water system safer and more resilient during natural disasters.

The lack of safe and reliable sources of water is a pressing issue and is finally receiving attention from local and national leaders; this attention provides industry an opportunity to share with them lessons we have learned from other sectors.

In the energy sector our members can bring lessons learned from installing and operating billions of dollars of smart grid upgrades to the electrical grid. Many of the technologies such as sensors and smart meters can transfer to the water system. During our research we were surprised to learn how few 21st century technologies are being used in our water system.

Since 2010, the National Institute of Standards and Technologies (NIST) has operated an effective public-private partnership to address issues associated with grid modernization. NIST began with a list of critical applications for the grid that was part of a final rule from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and supplemented it with its own insights to form a roadmap that has guided the industry for several years. It’s about time we developed a similar plan for the nation’s water infrastructure.

Good policy can help to solve this problem but the question is, what does good policy look like? Finding ways to tackle the six principles identified by NEMA is a good place to start, but the motivation has to exist at the producer and consumer level for both energy and water. For example, a challenge program (similar to the better buildings/better plants challenge in DOE) whereby participants are rewarded for meeting performance improvement over baseline for energy efficiency and water usage. Further, credit for reductions in water usage toward carbon reduction (less water use = less energy use) would also help. And finally, incentives should exist for the research and development of new technologies.

Paul Molitor serves as an Assistant Vice President for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association in Rosslyn, Virginia. On behalf of the 400-plus member companies in NEMA, he is responsible for interfacing with other non-government organizations, electrical utilities, state and federal agencies, the U.S. Congress, international bodies, and foreign governments on all activities and products in the NEMA scope.

Joseph Eaves serves as a Director, Government Relations for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association in Rosslyn, Virginia. He is responsible for working with Congress and federal agencies on legislation related to energy, energy efficiency, lighting, and motors.



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