Water is energy intensive, and energy is water intensive. This resource yin and yang is at the heart of both challenges and solutions. In their most prevalent forms today, energy generation and transmission and water treatment and conveyance alike are: centralized, based on often finite sources, expensive (whether those costs are borne at the point of end use or farther upstream in the system), vulnerable, and above all else, vital. Planning for the future involves rethinking these parallels, in particular investing heavily in energy and water efficiency and in a fundamental transformation toward a distributed resource model.
In our resource-constrained world, political and business leaders have an obligation to make sure that both processes operate as efficiently as possible with respect to each other -- to use the least amount of energy as possible to produce our water, and the least amount of water as possible to generate our energy.
While world leaders have a moral imperative to ensure that we steward these two interrelated resources with utmost efficiency, business leaders and individuals have an equally powerful incentive to do the same -- economics. It makes good business sense to do so, plain and simple, for it is cheaper to save energy than to buy energy, cheaper to save water than to provide water.
In our resource-distributed world, political and business leaders likewise have an opportunity to rethink the system. Energy -- especially renewables such as wind and solar -- is inherently distributed. So is water, embodied in rivers and streams, lakes and ponds, snow-capped mountains and wetlands-rich valleys. Yet myriad nations have handicapped themselves with hub-and-spoke electrical grid infrastructure and similarly designed water distribution systems. Both systems are heavily dependent on expensive, inefficient, centralized stations for power generation and water sanitation. These systems require nearly as much maintenance and investment in the distribution network as that required for the centralized facilities that generate the power and sanitize the water in the first place. Further, there are inherent losses in such a centralized system, whether via electricity transmission or water delivery via aqueducts and other methods.
By taking a distributed resource approach -- developing an infrastructure where power is generated and water is sanitized closer to the point of consumption -- not only can developing countries build a resource provision system that will cost far less, avoiding expensive distribution infrastructure investments, they will also build a system that is easier to maintain and less vulnerable to extreme events, whether tribal warfare, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters. In addition, distributed renewables (wind and solar especially) are far less water intensive than their centralized fossil fuel and nuclear counterparts in electricity generation.
Our energy and water systems stand much to gain through investments in efficiency and distributed resources. Nowhere is this truer than at the confluence of the two resources -- in the water impacts inherent in electricity generation; in the energy impacts inherent in water sanitation. Developed and developing nations alike face the challenges of these two precious and interconnected resources. World leaders can rapidly accelerate the expansion of such solutions through appropriate, supportive policies and investments. Businesses can capture value in efficiencies and tap entrepreneurial opportunities in a distributed resource model that engages far more players (especially consumers) than older, centralized models. Meanwhile, consumers -- empowered today more than ever before -- can become players in the game as well, through a variety of technologies and business models that enable them to participate in our energy and water economies, rather than just being consumer-recipients at the end of a long chain.
Leia Guccione is a consultant for the Rocky Mountain Institute. Pat Guccione is Vice President of Business Development for Chem-Aqua, a global supplier of water treatment to industrial and commercial customers. This blog post is in conjunction with Masdar’s Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week 2013.
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