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Carl Nettleton headshot

The Rise of Water and Energy Self-Sufficiency

By Carl Nettleton

Since the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a trend toward self-sufficiency has developed in the U.S.

At the national level, the focus on energy self-sufficiency is largely a reaction to a distaste for the use of oil from the Middle East but also the perception that it is important for national security to be energy independent.  This requires capital investment in U.S. energy development rather than purchasing crude as a commodity from elsewhere.

In business, the trend comes from the growing requirement to limit carbon emissions and a shift toward corporate social responsibility in general. However, the outcome of capital investments to reach these goals can result in reduced costs, eliminating vulnerability and resulting in greater self-sufficiency.

Even in homes, the trend is to capital investments to create self-sufficiency. For example, installing rooftop solar and buying cars charged by solar are all capital investment strategies that avoid buying energy from utilities and gasoline stations.

Energy use and water utilities

Nearly 20 percent of electricity and 30 percent of natural gas in California are related to the movement and treatment of water. In San Diego, where the vast majority of the water must be imported, water utilities are heavily innovating and investing in capital projects to become more water and energy self-sufficient.

San Diego water agencies address water self-sufficiency in a number of ways. The San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) completed a desalination plant in the city of Carlsbad that will provide 8 to 10 percent of the region’s water. The SDCWA contracted directly with water agencies in the agriculturally-rich Imperial Valley to bypass water wholesaler Metropolitan Water District, which serves 26 retail agencies and must balance the needs of all of those agencies. In addition to water recycling, the city of San Diego has a plan to produce a third of the municipality’s water by re-purifying wastewater to potable standards, an investment that makes the city more water self-sufficient.

Energy is a significant cost for water utilities, and capital investments in new or existing infrastructure reduce those costs and are part of the self-sufficiency trend.

SDCWA is floating 20 acres of solar cells on Olivenhain Reservoir to not only generate up to 8 megawatts of electricity, but also to test its value in reducing evaporation. Another innovation is a proposed pumped storage project for the San Vicente Reservoir in partnership with the city of San Diego that would use the storage of water as a battery. During the day, when there is excess renewable energy from solar and wind available at low cost, water would be pumped uphill from San Vicente to a smaller reservoir, effectively storing energy in the upper reservoir. In the evening, or whenever energy is in demand at a higher cost, the water would flow downhill through a hydropower plant and the energy would be recaptured and sold at a profit. SDCWA is also creating electricity through the use of turbines in water distribution pipelines.

The city of San Diego’s Public Utilities Department also developed a number of projects to produce electricity.  The department uses methane from its wastewater treatment and water recycling plants to power fuel cells, run generators and, when cleaned, to be piped into San Diego Gas and Electric’s (SDG&E) natural gas pipelines. It uses the thermal energy from facility processes to heat digesters and air condition the plants. Solar arrays have been constructed on several of the department’s facilities. The excess electricity generated not used internally is sold. These capital investments are part of the city of San Diego’s goal to operate 100 percent on clean energy by 2035 and are making the utility more energy self-sufficient.

Business innovation in water and energy

Innovative technologies are emerging for businesses and agriculture, too. WaterFX has developed a solar desalination process that treats farm drainage water so it can be reused. A pipeline filled with mineral oil is heated using parabolic solar mirrors. The heated oil then energizes a solar still that desalinates the water by distilling it. The water becomes steam, leaving the minerals behind as it returns to its liquid state, ready for use as clean water.  The firm says the technology can also be used to treat runoff, saline groundwater and industrial process water. One module can produce 65,000 gallons per day or 70 acre feet per year, creating self-sufficiency for farmers or other users with water quality issues.

One way for businesses to become water self-sufficient is to eliminate water from industrial processes.  Nike, Adidas and Ikea are all using a process by DyeCoo Corp. that eliminates the need to use water to dye fabrics. Instead, carbon dioxide (CO2) is converted into a liquid under extreme pressure and heat and substituted for water. Branded as the ColorDry process, it reduces dying time by 40 percent and energy use by 60 percent. Of course, water use is reduced 100 percent.

Water/energy innovation on the home front

The desire for residential self-sufficiency is apparent on homes, too. What if you could take a shower continuously with the same water? That’s what astronauts do on the International Space Station, the inspiration behind Orbital Systems’ shower. The shower contains a basin in the floor with a filtration system the company claims will create drinking-quality water. It saves 90 percent of the water and 80 percent of the energy needed for a warm shower.

Heating water is estimated to account for between 20 percent and 25 percent of the total energy consumption in a typical home, so innovation in this area can be meaningful. Nexus Water developed a gray water capture system that recycles 67 percent of indoor water and reduces 70 percent of the energy used for water heating while reducing sewage flow. Renewability is a firm attempting to address this problem by creating the Power Pipe. An incoming copper water pipe wraps around an outgoing drain pipe.  The warmth of the water in the drain pipe heats the water in copper pipe wrapped around it. The process adds as much as 25 degrees to the temperature of the water entering the water heater, reducing heat cost by up to 40 percent.

The old saw that says “everything old is new again” applies to an innovation the U.S. EPA resurfaced (or perhaps never lost sight of): using solar panels to heat water. Solar can significantly reduce the cost of heating water for both gas and electric water heaters with a relatively small rooftop footprint. When solar first surfaced in the public’s mind, it was to heat water for swimming pools and water heaters, not to create electricity. Photovoltaic make room on the roof. The old is new again!

The number of innovations and policies to create self-sufficiency are likely to multiply as the U.S. and other countries work to create a secure, self-sufficient and even sustainable world, whether at home, in the workplace, or at regional, state and national levels.

Image credit: Pixabay

Carl Nettleton headshot

Carl Nettleton is an acclaimed award-winning writer, speaker and analyst. He heads Nettleton Strategies, a public policy firm specializing in oceans, water, energy, climate, and U.S. Mexico border issues. Carl also founded OpenOceans Global, an NGO solving ocean crises by unifying and empowering global communities. Carl serves on the national and California advisory councils for Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), a national, nonpartisan group of business owners, investors and others who advocate for policies that are good for the economy and good for the environment. He is co-chair of the San Diego Water Conservation Action Committee (CAC) and a member of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, Lambda Alpha, South County Economic Development Council, Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce and U.S.-Mexico Border Philanthropy Partnership.

Read more stories by Carl Nettleton