California’s Watergy Conundrum

Via Aguanomics, one student’s look at California’s watergy dilemma:

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.



This entry was posted on Thursday, July 19th, 2012 at 9:52 pm and is filed under Uncategorized.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. 

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About This Blog And Its Author
As the scarcity of water and energy continues to grow, the linkage between these two critical resources will become more defined and even more acute in the months ahead.  This blog is committed to analyzing and referencing articles, reports, and interviews that can help unlock the nascent, complex and expanding linkages between water and energy -- The Watergy Nexus -- and will endeavor to provide a central clearinghouse for insightful articles and comments for all to consider.

Educated at Yale University (Bachelor of Arts - History) and Harvard (Master in Public Policy - International Development), Monty Simus has held a lifelong interest in environmental and conservation issues, primarily as they relate to freshwater scarcity, renewable energy, and national park policy.  Working from a water-scarce base in Las Vegas with his wife and son, he is the founder of Water Politics, an organization dedicated to the identification and analysis of geopolitical water issues arising from the world’s growing and vast water deficits, and is also a co-founder of SmartMarkets, an eco-preneurial venture that applies web 2.0 technology and online social networking innovations to motivate energy & water conservation.  He previously worked for an independent power producer in Central Asia; co-authored an article appearing in the Summer 2010 issue of the Tulane Environmental Law Journal, titled: “The Water Ethic: The Inexorable Birth Of A Certain Alienable Right”; and authored an article appearing in the inaugural issue of Johns Hopkins University's Global Water Magazine in July 2010 titled: “H2Own: The Water Ethic and an Equitable Market for the Exchange of Individual Water Efficiency Credits.”