Navigant Research Blog

Silicon Valley Tackles the Energy-Water Nexus

— June 18, 2014

No two systems in the built environment are more tightly linked than energy and water.  It’s hard to identify a pathway of conversion, conveyance, and utility of energy and water that does not touch the other system in one way or another.  This is commonly referred to as the energy-water nexus.  A recent Navigant Research report, Smart Water Networks, touched on this topic, in the context of water network innovations and their link to recent changes in the smart grid.

A recent blog by my colleague Eric Woods emphasized the future trends in water at a global scale.  According to the United Nations, water demand will increase by 55% by 2050, with drastic increases in the manufacturing sector.  At the same time, more than 40% of the global population is projected to be living in areas of severe water stress through 2050.  On the energy side, energy consumption is set to grow as well.  According to the 2013 International Energy Outlook, world energy consumption will grow by 56% between 2010 and 2040, mostly in the developing world.

(Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration)

Stresses on the System

And where do energy and water meet?  For consumers, look no further than your daily shower or dishwasher.  Heating water consumes 7% of commercial and 12% of residential energy in the United States.  With common appliances, it’s clear that making them more water or energy efficient cascades to savings of the other resource.

Another clear linkage in the energy-water nexus is hydropower.  In 2010, 16.1% of the world’s energy was generated using hydropower, and four countries – Albania, Bhutan, Lesotho, and Paraguay – generated all of their power from this source.

Looking back upstream in both energy and water, the linkages are equally impressive.  15% of all water is used for the energy sector.  Conveyance or pumping consumes more than 3% of the world’s energy, and in California alone, 7.7% of energy is used for water infrastructure.  Both systems are under stress from increases in demand, as mentioned earlier, but also from droughts, energy scarcity, and in some regions, political vulnerability (virtually all major river systems pass through more than one country).

Open Water Dive

Industry is taking notice.

At a recent Silicon Valley Leadership Group Energy and Sustainability Summit, I moderated a panel on how the cleantech space is making strides to manage the energy-water nexus in California and globally.  Chris King from eMeter (a Siemens company) discussed the need for open water data, analogous to the Green Button initiative.   Cynthia Truelove of the Center for Collaborative Policy argued that the disruptive technology that has made Silicon Valley so successful should carry over into creating disruptive policy that enables joint energy-water regulation that accounts for carbon impacts.  David Koller, from the Coachella Valley Water District, chronicled a pilot study that enabled customers to drastically cut down on water by providing them with smart water meters and relevant feedback in their bills.  From Imagine H2O, a water startup accelerator, Scott Bryan identified how WaterSmart, a company in its portfolio, is demonstrating success at becoming the “Opower for water.”  Some utilities are achieving a 5% reduction in residential water use in 6 months.

The discussion highlighted the need for a concerted effort among industry, policymakers, and end users to tackle the multifaceted challenge of the energy-water nexus of the present and the future.


Drought-Plagued California Looks to Smart Water System

— February 4, 2014

In drought-stricken California, an effective approach for helping people curb their energy consumption has shown similar results in helping them reduce their use of water.  It could also be a forerunner of similar programs in other regions that suffer from chronic water scarcity.

The 1-year pilot was conducted among residents living within East Bay Municipal Utility District’s (EBMUD’s) service territory, which includes Oakland and its surrounding suburbs.  Results from an independent study showed that when participants received information comparing their water consumption to neighborhood averages, usage decreased by 5% on average.

The pilot employed a “behavioral water efficiency” approach that has been used by numerous U.S. electric utilities to encourage customers to reduce consumption.  Opower, for example, uses this behavioral-based approach for energy utilities.  In EBMUD’s case, the technology provider was WaterSmart Software, which applies analytics and behavioral science tools to crunch data and provide consumers with feedback information and tips for cutting consumption.


The 10,000 EBMUD residential customers involved in the pilot received easy-to-comprehend water use reports for their home and compared consumption to similar-sized homes in the nearby area.  There was a control group set up to make sure other factors, like weather or other customer behavior, did not affect the estimated water savings.  It should be noted that the East Bay pilot was the first large-scale implementation of this type of technology by an urban water utility.

The pilot was partially funded by the California Water Foundation, which concluded that this type of behavior-based water use report, if implemented by other water utilities in California, could help meet state requirements to shrink per-capita water use by 20% by 2020.  And with Governor Jerry Brown’s recent declaration of a state of emergency due to drought, wider implementation of this reporting approach could spread rather quickly.

The East Bay study shows that saving water by providing more granular, timely, and actionable consumption data is an approach that can work.  This solution is bound to be used elsewhere in the United States, especially the Southwest and other regions where drought is an ongoing threat.  In a larger context, the pilot strengthens the case for using data analytics to help drive greater efficiency in water systems, as noted in a previous blog and in Navigant Research’s report, Smart Water Networks.  This is not to say upgraded hardware such as smart water meters and leak detecting sensor aren’t helpful, too.  The best practice will be to integrate both big data and smarter equipment to bring greater efficiencies to water systems.


New Discoveries Change Notions of Fresh Water

— December 30, 2013

Two new water discoveries have the potential to significantly alter our understanding and future use of this increasingly scarce resource.  One involves semi-fresh water located under the ocean, and the other is a find below the frozen surface of Greenland.

First, scientists have determined that an estimated half million cubic kilometers of low-salinity water (low enough to be turned into potable water) are trapped beneath the seabed on continental shelves around the world, according to a new study published in the international scientific journal Nature.   The amount of potentially useful water is staggering: a hundred times greater than the amount extracted from the earth’s sub-surface since 1900, according to Dr. Vincent Post, the study’s lead author and a professor in the School of the Environment at Flinders University, which oversees Australia’s National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training (NCGRT).

This offshore groundwater has been found off Australia, North America, South Africa, and China.  It could be utilized to supplement existing water sources for coastal cities and surrounding areas, and could potentially sustain some regions for decades. There are two methods of extracting this water, according to Dr. Post:  build an offshore drilling platform and pipe the water to shore, or drill from the mainland or from islands near the aquifers.  Previously, scientists thought this water only existed under rare and special conditions.

Under the Ice

The second discovery was made in Greenland, where researchers drilling through an ice core found something very surprising about 30 feet down: a giant aquifer estimated to be 27,000 square miles, larger than the state of West Virginia.  Details of the discovery were published recently in Nature Geoscience.

The Greenland aquifer is not considered as a water source for human activity; however, the environmental significance of this finding could be very important.  Scientists theorize the aquifer connects to a network of crevasses and streams that flow to ice sheets and helps lubricate the flowing glaciers.  They also suspect that the aquifer acts like a giant storage area, which could burst at some point, sending a large volume of water out of the ice sheet.  It may be a little of both phenomena taking place, according to Richard Forster, a glaciologist at the University of Utah whose students were among those drilling the core.  Forster has applied for more research funding to study the huge aquifer and how it might affect future ocean levels.  Given the amount of water – perhaps more than 100 billion tons – it could be enough to raise global sea levels by 0.4 millimeters, if it all flowed into the sea at once.  The melting of Greenland’s ice sheet adds about 0.7 millimeters of sea-level rise each year, under current conditions, so a 0.4 millimeter increase would be significant.

Uncharted Seas

These revelations come on the heels of the earlier discovery this year of aquifers in Africa, where large underground reservoirs could help ease drought conditions in North Kenya, as noted in a previous blog.

At this point the implications of these two latest discoveries are not fully known, and neither offers a panacea for the many issues surrounding water.  One could be a big boost for coastal areas in need of additional water sources, and the other could help deepen our understanding of fluctuating ocean levels.  Both are worthy of further study to determine what course of action, if any, makes sense.  Clearly, the aquifers under the sea could pay dividends by helping to reduce the effects of drought or water shortages on land.  But it will require careful drilling techniques and, among other things, the application of smart distribution technologies (some of which are described in Navigant Research’s report, Smart Water Networks).  As Dr. Post warns, “These water reserves [under the sea] are non-renewable,” and “we should use them carefully – once gone, they won’t be replenished until the sea level drops again, which is not likely to happen for a very long time.”


Smart Water Making Gains beyond the United States

— November 20, 2013

While much attention has been paid to smart water technology deployments in the United States, there’s evidence that smart water technology is gaining traction in other parts of the world.  The need is certainly acute: Unaccounted for water amounts to more than $14 billion annually around the globe, according to The World Bank.  In response, innovative water projects in various stages have emerged in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.

In Europe, the SmartWater4Europe project involves 21 different entities, including water utilities, technology vendors, research centers, and universities.  With a budget of more than €10 million ($13.5 million), the leading players are: Acciona Agua of Spain, Vitens of the Netherlands, and Thames Water from the United Kingdom.  The overall goal is to apply new technologies for better management of drinking water networks.

The first project will be deployed by Acciona Agua in the Spanish city of Cáceres.  Acciona will install advanced technologies in the town’s city center and historic district.  The company will utilize a single software platform that integrates remote meter reading, water quality sensors, a geographic information system (GIS), and mathematical modeling that can detect faults, jams, or leaks.  Vitens will lead a similar project in the Dutch province of Friesland and Thames Water will conduct its project in London.  Working with the University of Lille, the companies will also manage a project in the French town of Villeneuve d´Ascq.  Results from the four projects will be collected over the next 4 years.

In the Desert

In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is making major investments in water supply technology.  The water-stressed country has allocated up to $53 billion for a variety of projects to be completed by 2022, with much of the money going to desalination and wastewater treatment projects.  Desalination is the country’s main source of water, and though it requires large amounts of energy to transform seawater into potable water, this process is seen as the most viable solution given Saudi Arabia’s ample supply of oil and gas.

Also in the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates’ SembCorp Water & Power Company is expanding its Fujairah 1 desalination plant using technology from Energy Recovery, a California-based company that specializes in harnessing reusable energy from industrial fluid flows and pressure cycles.  Energy Recovery’s devices will be used at Fujairah 1, with the expectation the new gear will cut 83,000 metric tons of CO₂ per year, amounting to 140 million kWh of energy savings and more than $14 million in annual cost savings.


In Asia, several water utilities in India are moving ahead on projects to upgrade their water systems.  The Bangalore Water & Sewerage Board (BWSSB) has awarded a contract to French company Suez Environnement to improve its distribution system and reduce unaccounted for water (UFW), which is due to leakage, theft, or under-registered meters; UFW is also known as non-revenue water.  The goal of the 8-year project is to reduce UFW from the current level of 42% to 16% in the state of Karnataka, which includes more than 400 000 consumers.  Similarly, Suez has a new contract with Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corp. (PCMC) to upgrade its water system and reduce UFW.  The two contracts for Suez are valued at $27.5 million.  And in Delhi, the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), the main water supplier in the capital, is deploying new gear from Itron, which includes 120,000 advanced meters, 40,000 standard meters, mobile collection equipment, and software.  Upon completion in March 2014, this project will be India’s largest mobile advanced metering system.

These projects demonstrate a growing global awareness of the need for modernizing water production, distribution, and treatment systems.  The problem lies in making these projects budget priorities amidst competing capital projects.  Clearly, oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE have more flexibility to direct funds to water projects, while other countries like India struggle to make the case among competing infrastructure needs.  Eventually, investments in water systems will have to be made in order to avoid looming water supply catastrophes.


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