Coordinating Water Energy Efficiency Efforts Provides Greater Savings for Water and Energy Utilities

All forms of energy—from hydropower to solar panels—use water to extract and process the fuels, construct the processing facilities or generate the electricity. Likewise, water supply, treatment, use and disposal use considerable amounts of energy. Coordinating water-energy-efficiency efforts provides a significant opportunity to achieve greater savings for water and energy utilities and for their customers, according to a new study from the Pacific Institute: “Water-Energy Synergies: Coordinating Efficiency Programs in California”.

Recent events have made the connections between water and energy very visible. The Rim Fire has burned large sections of the Tuolumne River watershed and along several miles of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, affecting the water and energy supply of San Francisco and other Bay Area communities. Similarly in Southern California, the recent closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station has raised concerns about meeting regional energy needs, particularly during the hot summer months, when electricity and water demand are especially high.

But while these events demonstrate some of the challenges associated with the water-energy connection, they also highlight some of the opportunities: namely that saving water saves energy—and using less energy in turn saves even more water—reducing our vulnerability to water and energy constraints. To better understand the barriers to coordinating water and energy efficiency programs, the Pacific Institute interviewed and surveyed California water and energy managers. The managers reported the most significant barriers were associated with funding, limited staff time, uncertainty about how to allocate costs and benefits among project partners, and water-related pricing policies, as well as an absence of established relationships between potential water and energy partners.

“We examine the barriers to coordinated water and energy efficiency programs and discuss, through case studies, ways that several California utilities have been able to overcome these barriers,” says Heather Cooley, co-director of the Pacific Institute Water Program. “Coordinating programs can be an important tool to meet efficiency goals, allowing the state to meet critical policy objectives and saving Californians money.”

In California, an estimated 19 percent of the state’s electricity use and 32 percent of all natural gas consumption are related to water. For perspective, consider that leaving the hot water running for five minutes uses as much energy as operating a 60-Watt light bulb for 14 hours. In many cases, it can be cheaper to save energy through water conservation and efficiency measures than through current and planned energy efficiency programs. For example, the California Energy Commission, in a 2005 study, found that water-efficiency improvements could save as much energy as some of the state’s existing energy-efficiency programs but at about half the cost.

The case studies demonstrate that there are many types of programs, ranging from those that save hot water indoors (clothes washers) to those that save cold water outdoors (efficient landscape), that can jointly achieve water and energy efficiency goals. These types of projects can be funded and promoted cooperatively. While it may require more work to coordinate these activities, they can also yield higher benefits and lower costs.

“Energy savings, and the associated cost savings, can make many water-efficiency measures cost effective,” says Kristina Donnelly, co-author of the report. “Some water and energy utilities have already been resourceful and innovative in bringing programs to fruition. Nearly everyone we interviewed about such programs was passionate about developing these partnerships and keen to do more.”

The report provides a series of recommendations for water and energy utilities to promote coordinated programs that address customer end-use efficiencies. Among them are:

  • Utilities should designate at least one staff member as the lead for pursuing water-energy program opportunities and discussing how existing water and energy programs might be coordinated.
  • Utilities should seek ways to streamline offerings to customers through better coordination, especially for audits, and evaluate whether using a third-party to administer the program could reduce the burden on staff time.
  • Water utilities should explore ways to leverage some of the new statewide energy efficiency programs that are designed to achieve deep, comprehensive energy savings in California.
  • Water utilities should address long-term water savings and revenue stability as part of their best management practices.
  • State agencies, including the CPUC and CEC, should develop guidelines for allocating water, energy, and cost savings among project partners.

The report “Water-Energy Synergies: Coordinating Efficiency Programs in California” can be downloaded free of charge on the Pacific Institute website.

The Pacific Institute is a nonprofit research organization working to create a healthier planet and sustainable communities. Based in Oakland, Calif., the institute conducts interdisciplinary research and partners with stakeholders to produce solutions that advance environmental protection, economic development, and social equity—in California, nationally, and internationally.

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