“Conserving water conserves energy, and conserving energy conserves water,” was a key message of 2014 World Water Day and the World Water Development Report. It’s a message that business executives across the economy, not just those in the agricultural and industrial sectors, are increasingly taking to heart.
The search for ways to minimize waste and conserve water, other natural resources and energy is making for what may seem like strange bedfellows. Some of the world’s largest corporations have been joining with leading environmental organizations to find what amount to triple bottom line solutions — solutions that can turn business risks and threats into opportunities and benefits.
Working together at the water-energy nexus, AT&T and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) over the past few years have developed a set of tools to help businesses reduce water, and hence energy, use for cooling buildings. Setting a target of reducing their own annual water use by 5 percent (some 150 million gallons) and annual energy use by 400 million kilowatt-hours (enough for 35,000 U.S. households), the two unlikely partners are setting out to promote and foster adoption of their water-energy conservation toolkit in five water-stressed U.S. cities.
Business risks and threats at the water-energy nexus
It turns out that AT&T has very good reasons for being concerned about water and energy use. As EDF Project Manager Brendan FitzSimons notes in a blog post, “A quarter of AT&T’s top water-consuming facilities – a mix of offices and data centers – are in water-stressed regions, which poses a risk to its operations.” AT&T is not alone.
“Thirty-six states faced water shortages last summer, and the 2012 drought cost the U.S. an estimated $35 billion from crop losses and business interruptions,” FitzSimons points out. “U.S. water prices have doubled or even tripled over the past dozen years, and rates are expected to continue to climb.
Commercial and institutional (17 percent of publicly-supplied water use) and industry (5 percent), as well as U.S. households, are critically dependent on ample, affordable supplies of freshwater.
A similar situation exists when it comes to energy usage. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates commercial and residential buildings accounted for nearly 40 percent of energy consumption across the country in 2012.
Compounding this, energy consumption among data center operators, such as AT&T, is growing a lot faster than average. Worldwide, data centers consume some 30 billion watts of electrical power — equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants, according to the results of a year-long investigation undertaken and published by The New York Times in 2012.
Moreover, the Times found, as much as 90 percent of that electrical power can be wasted, while reliance on diesel fuel for backup generators makes data centers some of the biggest sources of air pollution.
Then there’s the linkage between water and energy use, a linkage that flows both ways. Here in the U.S., thermoelectric power generation is the largest user of freshwater supplies (41.5 percent), according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). At 37 percent, irrigation is the second largest.
A water-energy conservation solution
All this makes the water-energy conservation partnership between AT&T and EDF important. The partners estimate that 28 billion gallons of water – enough to fill 400 million bathtubs year after year – could be saved by improving the efficiency of cooling towers in U.S. buildings.
As EDF’s FitzSimons writes:
“Saving water creates a virtuous cycle: the more water we save means less energy is needed for supplying, treating and distributing water, and those energy savings translate into less water we need to use for developing and producing energy—the ‘energy-water nexus.’ Using water for cooling translates into lower costs for businesses as well — lower water/sewage charges and less energy and chemicals used for running building cooling systems — savings that add up.”
AT&T and EDF are promoting their water-energy efficiency toolkit to businesses in Dallas, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles and Phoenix – all water-stressed metropolitan areas. Evidence that water and energy aren’t only on the minds of EDF and AT&T, other companies, including AT&T competitor Verizon, are taking the toolkit in-house and adapting it to meet their organizational needs.
Image courtesy of Y. Kanazawa/Flickr
Graphics courtesy of EPA WaterSense Partnership Program