Why Energy Use Is Really Water Use

Pumping water from where it's abundant to where it's not takes a lot of energy.

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Every time you turn on your kitchen sink or flush your toilet, your electricity meter should be running. And every time your electricity meter is moving, imagine a faucet somewhere pouring out water at full blast. Water and electricity – two resources we in the Western world tend to take for granted in our homes and offices and, really, everywhere – should be thought of as one and the same.

Energy is required to pump water across virtually any distances. And often, the energy needed to enable this water transport is itself largely created with huge quantities of water. The coal that provides 45 percent of the nation's energy is actually burnt to heat water into steam that turns turbines. This 2005 report [PDF] from the California Energy Commission found that water-related energy use accounts for 19 percent of the state's energy use. Pumping water from where it's abundant to where it's not takes a lot of energy, and is likely to take even more as time goes on.

In a time of increased sensitivity to resource depletion and environmental impacts, the connection between water and energy has become incredibly important to understand. But in urban design and development, this interconnectedness hasn't played as large a role in guiding choices as it should. That's beginning to change, and the arid southwest is becoming the main stage for bringing about these changes to the way communities and cities are designed.

"Water and energy can't be separated. This is particularly true in the West," says Hadley Arnold, co-director of the Arid Lands Institute at Woodbury University, in Burbank, California. The institute has been working to make this connection more clear and pressing to architects and designers of the built environment, encouraging them "to treat water with a kind of seriousness as basic to the design process, at least in this part of the world."

To that end, the Arid Lands Institute last week held a conference that explored the water and energy nexus in the context of the American southwest, recasting this arid landscape not as an unnatural drain on resources but as the ideal testing ground for new ideas and design techniques that integrate a smarter use of water. Arnold says this type of work is only starting to emerge in the field of architecture.

"It's traditionally been the purview of engineers," Arnold says. "Architecture, not so much. We’ve let engineers and landscape architects and economists and design professionals who give us better toilets and waterless urinals solve our problems for us."

The problems go beyond urinals. Despite the high price and energy budget required to pump water into places like Los Angeles and Phoenix, not many places in the arid southwest have the sort of policies or infrastructures in place that collect rather than throw away stormwater, or that actively encourage the recycling of stormwater and wastewater within a closed-loop system. Water, it seems to be assumed, will simply continue to come from somewhere else. But as the financial and environmental costs of bringing in water from far-off places grow, more emphasis will have to be placed on local sources.

Further complicating matters is the impact of climate change. With increasing temperatures, evaporation is claiming more of the water behind the dams and in the reservoirs that keep cities and agricultural areas alive. The variability of weather is also expected to create an increase in the intensity of flooding in arid places.

"When you sit down to come up with your general plan or your sustainability plan or your climate action plan, if you're not looking at water goals, energy goals and climate goals as all aligning, you're missing an opportunity," Arnold says.

To try to pull these three related factors closer together in the minds of designers, the Arid Land Institute recently held a design competition, the results of which are currently on display at the Architecture and Design Museum in Los Angeles. The ideas presented represent emerging concepts in adapting cities and infrastructures and policies to cope with natural water scarcity – especially scarcity made worse by climate change.

Many of the projects in the exhibit emphasize the importance of local sources of water and its conservation, which are two of the most straightforward approaches to uncoupling that nexus between water and energy.

The two may be inseparably intertwined, especially in arid places like the southwest. But with more attention from designers and architects, new approaches to building could begin to loosen the strong reliance water and energy have on each other, and to reduce the amount of each that city living requires.

Top image: Jurjen Veerman /Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.