Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies
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Foreseeing and Managing the Water-Renewable Energy Nexus

The inevitable expansion in renewable energy infrastructure will require keen attention and careful management of restricted water supplies.

Achieving a sustainable energy economy will first require sustainable management of our nation's water resources, according to a recent article in Environmental Law. Despite best efforts to devise climate mitigation and adaptation strategies through the deployment of clean energy, failure to consider the foundation upon which energy is built – water – will ultimately undermine these efforts, says the author.
Energy and water regulators must therefore work together to create a national watershed planning and management process.
The energy-water nexus describes the inextricability of energy generation from water supply and water supply from consistent energy generation: resource extraction, turbine power, and industrial cooling all depend on the widespread availability of water; similarly, energy is necessary for the processing and distribution of water, both potable and non-potable.
According to 2005 estimates from the California Energy Commission, the California water sector in 2001 was the biggest electricity consumer in the state.
In water-stressed regions of the country, power generation facilities – whether renewable or not – are competing with other water uses. This will become increasingly problematic as populations grow and climate change further stresses water resources.
The growth of sustainable energy systems must therefore strive to integrate what are now almost fully compartmentalized policy arenas: water policy and energy policy.
Presently, it is only during the permitting of hydropower facilities (under the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee) and nuclear power plants (under the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) that energy policy overtly considers water use. Outside of these two instances, federal energy policy offers no guidance on the management of water resources.
Such limited interaction between energy and water authorities is largely a product of federalism within the Clean Water Act – that is, state rather than federal government usually enjoys full allocation and administration rights over the water flowing within its borders.
Author Ann Drobot, a practicing lawyer in Florida, offers two preliminary ideas to overcome this impediment to a coordinated and national watershed management system.
First, she looks to the Omnibus Public Land Management Act (OPLMA) of 2009. Though this bill failed passage in the House after moving out of the Senate, it provides a model framework for productive partnerships across national agencies, as well as between federal- and state-level governments. Though the OPLMA negotiated competing interests among land use claims, the same notions hold true in the case of water.
Second, Ms. Drobot recommends an economic incentive program to both encourage and reward effective management programs through the use of federal aid. Ms. Drobot cites the success of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972, which provided infrastructure grants for the construction and increased effectiveness of sewage treatment plants at a time when huge quantities of raw sewage were being discharged daily into U.S. waterways.
The current energy infrastructure is old and emits carbon into the atmosphere as our old sewage system once emitted untreated wastewater into rivers and lakes. The transition to an energy mix more dependent on renewables is inevitable. But as this process advances policymakers must carefully consider the connection between energy generation and water availability, integrating the development and management of these two resources in a single and sustainable action plan.
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Original Paper

Ann Drobot, “Transitioning to a Sustainable Energy Economy: The Call for National Cooperative Watershed Planning,” Environmental Law 41 (2011): 707-775.


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