We Manage Water Independent of Energy Policy at Our Peril

by Dan Watkiss, Bracewell & Giuliani

The U.N. General Assembly in July unanimously recognized access to fresh water as a basic human right. But according to writers Jeneen Interlandi and Ryan Tracy in Newsweek’s Oct. 18 cover story, that basic human right is in jeopardy in much of the world, including high-growth regions of the U.S.


In an earlier 2008 Scientific American article, professor Michael Weber, director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas at Austin, put in focus how critically interdependent are access to fresh water and the energy needed to deliver it.

Even though water and energy are “the two most fundamental ingredients of modern civilization,” he lamented that “almost no one is addressing the tension between the two: water restrictions are hampering solutions for generating more energy, and energy problems, particularly rising prices, are curtailing efforts to supply more clean water.”

After reviewing the mixed track record of recent efforts to privatize water works domestically and abroad, Interlandi and Tracy conclude, as does Weber, that stabilizing economical water and energy supplies will require that state and federal water and energy policies promptly become closely coordinated so that instead of “water planners assuming they will have all of the energy they need and energy planners assuming they will have all of the water they need, we . . . get them in the same room to make decisions” jointly.

The Department of Energy (DOE) in a 2006 report to Congress on the interdependency of energy and water similarly concluded that “the current U.S. path of largely managing water and energy separately” must be replaced by joint development and management “so that each resource is used to its full value.”

Weber presents two graphic illustrations of the interdependency of water and energy supply and how our choices involving each impact the other.

In one he compares the amount of water required to generate 1 MW of electricity from three types of generating units: 7,400-20,000 gallons for gas/steam combined cycle; 21,000-50,000 gallons for coal and oil; and a whopping 25,000-60,000 gallons for nuclear. The DOE report presents similar correlations.

While not represented in Weber’s article, the DOE report confirms that renewable energy technologies, notably wind and solar generation, consume little or no fresh water during operation.

The water virtues and vices of other energy choices are less clear, however. For example, another metric Weber presents is water consumption associated with energy used to travel 100 miles. The traditional gasoline vehicle consumes seven to 14 gallons, in contrast with the 130-6,200 gallons a vehicle powered with ethanol made from corn consumes. Hydrogen fuel cell and plug-in hybrids fall in between at 42 gallons and 24 gallons respectively.

Weber’s second illustration presents the opposite relationship: the energy in kilowatt-hours (KWh) required to deliver 1 million gallons of clean water from four sources: 1,400 KWh from a lake or river; 1,800 KWh from ground water; 2,350-3,300 KWh from wastewater; and 9,780-16,500 KWh to desalinate seawater.

Current trends in energy supply promise to marry water and energy supply yet more tightly. Natural gas increasingly is touted to be the optimal bridge fuel for generating electricity as the nation endeavors in coming years to reduce to sustainable levels its greenhouse gas emissions by retiring existing coal-fired power plants and replacing gasoline with hybrid or plug-in electric vehicles. Domestically, an increasing amount of that natural gas is expected to be produced from shale rock using hydraulic fracturing or “frac’ing,” in which large volumes of water together with sand are injected into the shale to fracture it and allow trapped natural gas to flow.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the renovation of the U.S. water supply infrastructure (much of which dates back to the early decades of the past century) will require a national investment of $300 billion in the near term.

How and when we invest in that urgently needed renovation should be a central component of the nation’s energy policy because energy and water supply are inextricably linked.


Dan Watkiss is a partner with Bracewell & Giuliani in Washington, D.C., representing power companies, exploration and production and midmarket companies, natural gas pipelines, power and liquefied natural gas project developers and lenders, as well as government agencies and regulators. Reach him at dan.watkiss@bgllp.com.


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