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How Can We Improve the Relationship Between Water and Energy Infrastructure?

image credit: A desalination plant in Dubai. Richard Allenby-Pratt/Getty Images

The condition of the country's infrastructure has presented a clear danger to public health. A report from the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the water infrastructure in America a grade of "D+" and the reality of the issue is far more disconcerting. With over 200,000 recorded water main breaks each year — and the failure in Flint, Michigan — something needs to change.

Fortunately, the federal government has acknowledged the necessity of increased investment in the water infrastructure. The introduction of the Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act holds promise for affected areas of the country. It authorizes $22.5 billion in federal funding for the repair, replacement and construction of wastewater conveyance and treatment facilities.

The new legislation may seem like a step in the right direction, and it is, but the nation's ongoing struggle for clean water is part of a larger problem. It's crucial to acknowledge the link between water and energy infrastructure, a close and co-dependent connection that has implications for the country's progress. Our water infrastructure presents only a partial view of a far more substantial picture.

The Link Between Water and Energy

Water and energy share a cyclical relationship. The production of water demands an enormous amount of energy, and the generation of energy requires a substantial quantity of water. As context, power plants that rely on gas, coal, oil or nuclear power use more than 40% of freshwater that institutions withdraw for human uses in the United States.

That's not to say the freshwater disappears completely. It returns to the environment after it has served its purpose. Of course, a power plant doesn't always have access to a steady water supply, and if they have to contend with a shortage, they'll spend a significant sum of money to transport water from other areas to sustain their facilities.

The water-related energy costs aren't the only problem in these situations. Inefficiencies in the country's infrastructure can lead to greater issues.

The Issues of Aging Infrastructure

Aging infrastructure is more than just a cost concern for energy companies. It presents a significant threat to individuals and communities, a point that House Speaker Pelosi remarked on to her Caucus. "Our water systems, some of them are 100 years old, built of brick and wood. How would you like a glass of water from them?"

The presence of boil-water advisories is further evidence of this emerging problem. The federal government has issued these directives in towns throughout the country, urging citizens to boil their drinking water before consumption to prevent illness. As the advisories become standard fare in states like California, Michigan, Louisiana and New York, it's clear that water quality remains a critical issue.

So what are the solutions? How can government officials and energy companies contend with the crisis?

The Resolution to the Crisis

A greater dependence on renewable energy would alleviate some of the pressure on the country's outdated infrastructure. As context, solar panel technology only requires a few cups of water to create one kilowatt of energy, where a fossil fuel plant needs gallons of water for the same output. The adoption of solar energy systems would greatly reduce the resources needed for energy generation.

The agriculture industry serves as an example of the immense value in solar energy systems. An increasing number of operations across the U.S. have embraced solar power as a money-saving measure, enabling them to reduce their rising electricity costs. The food and beverage industry has shown enthusiasm for solar energy as well, citing many of the same motivations.

With the growing acceptance of solar power and the $22.5 billion investment in water infrastructure, it seems like the crisis may soon be under control.

Moving Into the Next Decade

It may take time to improve the relationship between the country's water and energy infrastructure, but progress is possible. The Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act will help to mitigate risk, and solar energy systems have incredible potential for reducing the strain on the country's existing systems. As we move into the next decade, these solutions will have a significant impact on the state of public health.

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Discussions

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 17, 2019 6:53 pm GMT

Usually when you read about the uniting of water and energy it's more forward-looking at desalination, but I appreciate a look into the connection today and what challenges need to be addressed. 

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