Water Smart, Energy Smart: Griffiths-Sattenspiel is both

When you drive by an empty office building at night and see lights left on, you probably think about the energy that’s being wasted, but do you also think about the water that’s wasted while the electric meter spins? When you weigh your transportation options, you probably think about convenience, cost, and energy impacts, but do you think about water impacts?

Earlier this week, Bevan Griffiths-Sattenspiel, co-author of “The Carbon Footprint of Water”, a report on the tight relationship between water and energy consumption released last year by River Network, addressed a crowd at Wingspread. Like a hydrant opened on a hot summer day, Bevan poured forth with numbers, charts, trends, and images.picture1_x_2
The message boiled down to three simple points and one conclusion. First, climate change is here, and it’s about more than temperature. As we’ve heard repeatedly in recent years, water is the vector through which we will experience climate change – drought, increased storm intensity, increased water use, etc. Bevan told us that of the ten key findings of a 2009 study entitled “Global Climate Change Impacts in the U.S.”, eight of them tie to water.
Secondly, thermoelectric power, which provides 90% of U.S. electricity, is the largest user of water in the country. Though he took us on a deep dive into the numbers, it comes to one simple fact: When you use electricity, you use water. A lot of water. In some situations the water is returned to its source, but it’s altered – small fish are killed, temperatures are raised, quality is impacted. In fact, our energy supply chain has water impacts throughout – water pollution stemming from coal, gas, and oil extraction, water used during fuel processing, energy (and hence, water) to transport the fuel, air pollution that eventually falls back to the ground, polluting our waters, and the list goes on.
And finally, using water uses energy. It takes electricity to purify water, to create the chemicals that keep our water clean, and to pump the water through the system. Once the water is used, more energy is required to pump the water to a treatment facility, to run the treatment facility, to dry the treated sewage, etc. And in the case of hot water, additional energy (as much as 1/3 of our natural gas usage!) is required. If you think about how heavy water is (when was the last time you had to haul a 5-gallon jug of water?), this begins to make sense. Conclusion? If you want to save energy, use less water (especially hot water), and use it closer to its point of origin.
And that’s the beauty of it. By getting smarter about water, we make headway on our energy challenges and begin to bend back the curve of climate change impacts. At the same time, as we make smart choices about energy conservation and convert to wind and solar power, we lessen the load on our nation’s waters.
We are fortunate to have people like Bevan who can synthesize this complex array of information for the rest of us. It was a special treat for the live audience to have a chance to ask questions on the spot. If you missed his presentation, I hope you’ll have time to watch the recording we’ve posted. After you’ve watched, I encourage you to submit questions to Bevan in the form of a blog comment. He’ll either answer them directly in this column, or in another blog column he’s offered to write for us (before he heads to Equador for two years with the Peace Corps!).

p.s. If you don’t want to wait, I encourage you to check out River Network’s library of fact sheets, calculators, and reports on the water-energy connection

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