Water and energy are resources that are reciprocally and mutually linked, because meeting energy needs requires water, often in large quantities, for mining, fuel production, hydropower, and power plant cooling, and energy is needed for pumping, treatment, and distribution of water and for collection, treatment, and discharge of wastewater. This interrelationship is often referred to as the energy-water nexus, or the water-energy nexus. There is growing recognition that “saving water saves energy.” Energy efficiency initiatives offer opportunities for delivering significant water savings, and likewise, water efficiency initiatives offer opportunities for delivering significant energy savings. In addition, saving water also reduces carbon emissions by saving energy otherwise generated to move and treat water.
This report provides background on energy for facilities that treat and deliver water to end users and also dispose of and discharge wastewater. Energy use for water is a function of many variables, including water source (surface water pumping typically requires less energy than groundwater pumping), treatment (high ambient quality raw water requires less treatment than brackish or seawater), intended end-use, distribution (water pumped long distances requires more energy), amount of water loss in the system through leakage and evaporation, and level of wastewater treatment (stringency of water quality regulations to meet discharge standards). Likewise, the intensity of energy use of water, which is the relative amount of energy needed for a task such as pumping water, varies depending on characteristics such as topography (affecting groundwater recharge), climate, seasonal temperature, and rainfall. Most of the energy used for water-related purposes is in the form of electricity. Water-related energy is estimated to account for about 4% of the nation’s electricity generation, but many data gaps exist. Also, regional differences can be significant. In California, for example, as much as 19% of the state’s electricity consumption is for pumping, treating, collecting, and discharging water and wastewater.
Energy consumption by public drinking water and wastewater utilities, which are primarily owned and operated by local governments, can represent 30%-40% of a municipality’s energy bill. At drinking water plants, the largest energy use (about 80%) is to operate motors for pumping. At wastewater treatment plants, aeration, pumping, and solids processing account for most of the electricity that is used. Energy is the second-highest budget item for these utilities, after labor costs, so energy conservation and efficiency are issues of increasing importance to many of them. Opportunities for efficiency exist in several categories, such as upgrading to more efficient equipment, improving energy management, and generating energy on-site to offset purchased electricity. However, barriers to improved energy efficiency by water and wastewater utilities exist, including capital costs and reluctance by utility officials to change practices or implement new technologies.
Topics for research to better understand water-related energy use include studies of energy demands for water at local, regional, and national scales; development of consistent data collection methodology to track water and energy data across all sectors; development and implementation of advanced technologies that save energy and water; and analysis of incentives, disincentives, and lack of incentives to investing in cost-effective energy or water efficiency measures.