Public officials in the U.S. Southeast should recognize and carefully manage the relationships between energy and water.
Electric power production in the Southeast draws about 40 billion gallons of water daily (65 percent of total freshwater withdrawals)—about equal to the freshwater withdrawals for public supply across the entire country.
Meanwhile, the energy needed nationally to treat water and wastewater can account for a more than 30 percent of municipal energy costs and an average home can spend upwards of $250 per year on energy needed for hot water.
WRI worked with the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance and Southface to identify opportunities to advance solutions that address both energy and water challenges in the region.
The Southeast is among the fastest growing and most populous areas in the United States. According to census data, the region’s population increased nearly 20 percent in the past decade. States in the region issued more than 420,000 new housing permits in 2007—about 30 percent of the national total for that year. More people and more buildings mean more demand for water and energy.
Meanwhile, drought conditions over the past few years have affected supplies for cities, industries, hydroelectric dams, and thermoelectric (nuclear and coal-fired) power plants. Freshwater bodies across the Southeast lost capacity, causing problems for states, industries, and residents. The situation has led to conflicts among Georgia, Alabama, and Florida over control of the Apalachicola/Chattahoochee/Flint River Basin and similar conflicts between North and South Carolina over the Catawba River.
State and federal policy action can leverage the connections between energy and water and encourage conservation and efficiency measures that offer environmental and economic benefits.
Water for Energy
Nearly two out of every three gallons of freshwater withdrawals in the Southeast are sent to electric power plants to meet cooling water demands. About a gallon of water is consumed for each kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity produced.
Southeast Freshwater Withdrawals By Use Category (2000)
Energy efficiency gains and investments in power supplies that use less water help ensure adequate energy and water resources.
As decision makers evaluate options for meeting regional electricity needs, they should consider water resource implications and develop solutions for both energy and water challenges. Public officials at the local, state, and federal level have opportunities to capture water benefits with actions that target either the supply of or demand for electricity.
Supply-Side Policy Priorities:
Evaluate how new electric power production will impact water resources
Prioritize investments in energy resources and technologies that use little or no freshwater
Demand-Side Policy Priorities:
Educate consumers about the links between energy and water use
Encourage investment in energy efficiency
Demonstrate leadership with energy efficient public buildings
Offer financial incentives to spur markets for energy efficient homes, equipment, and products
Energy for Water
The annual amount of energy needed to heat water for an average home is more than the annual energy used to light that same house. Water and wastewater treatment account for 4 percent of total national electricity use. Water savings, therefore, translate to energy savings.
EPA’s WaterSense program points out the critical connections between energy and water use, noting that water running from a faucet for five minutes uses energy equivalent to that needed to power a 60-watt light bulb for 14 hours.
Recognizing that water use and energy demand overlap offers opportunities to capture dual benefits with policies that advance water efficiency. For example, upgrading just half the household in the Southeast with WaterSense labeled faucets or faucet aerators could save residents an estimated $40 million on their water bills and another $80 million on their energy bills.
Southeast policymakers can take steps to promote water (and energy) savings, starting with these near-term actions that focus on demand-side efficiency. Here are some recommendations from the report:
Demonstrate leadership with water efficient public buildings
Provide financial incentives to spur markets for water efficient homes, equipment, and products
Develop and launch information campaigns to educate consumers on water-energy links and water efficiency opportunities
Encourage wider adoption of solar hot water systems with additional tax credits or low-interest loans
Evaluate energy use at water and wastewater treatment facilities and provide funding for efficiency upgrades to capture energy savings opportunities
Relationships between energy use and water are often overlooked
In the Southeast, and elsewhere, policymakers have the opportunity to tackle energy and water challenges at the same time. A crucial first step is recognizing where energy use requires water, and where water use requires energy. The next step is implementing the appropriate policies and incentives to manage the links between regional energy and water resources.