The Missing Energy-Water Roadmap

by Dave Owen
Lesley McAllister

February 19, 2013

In the 2005 Energy Policy Act, Congress recognized that energy and water supply issues are deeply intertwined, and required the Department of Energy (DOE) to report on their nexus and make recommendations for future action within two years. (42 USC 16319).  DOE started this important work, but never finished it. 

DOE’s initial report, issued in 2007, hinted at the complexity and seriousness of the energy-water nexus.  It discussed both how supplying energy requires water and supplying water requires energy.  For example, thermoelectric power plants (primarily coal-fired, natural gas-fired and nuclear plants) account for about 40% of all freshwater withdrawals in the United States, roughly equal to the amount of freshwater withdrawn for irrigated agriculture.  For its part, water supply and treatment consume about 4% of the electricity generated domestically, and activities associated with water use (irrigation, water heating, clothes washing and drying) consume even more. 

Yet our energy policies give scant attention to issues of water supply, and our water policies give scant attention to energy.  Arguably, our law- and policy-making institutions are poorly suited to dealing with this extensive interconnectedness.  Jurisdiction over water and energy issues is spread across more than two dozen House and Senate committees, well over a dozen federal agencies, 50 state legislatures, and countless state and local agencies. 

Moreover, neither our energy policies nor our water policies are giving serious enough attention to the problem of climate disruption.  Climate disruption will dramatically affect water supply, as the timing, type, and amount of precipitation all change.  The impacts – from drought in some areas to flooding in others – will have many consequences for energy supply and use.  Power plants that use huge amounts of freshwater for cooling are likely to confront new legal and economic constraints. Hydroelectric facilities built for old stream flow regimes will have to contend with new ones.  The energy demands of the water supply sector will likely grow as desalination plants are built and water is pumped into dry areas from distant places.  In these ways and many others, climate disruption is likely to bring many changes to the energy and water sectors.  Yet law and policy are reacting slowly, and in some contexts not at all, to those changes.

In an important way, the water-energy nexus represents a zone of enormous opportunity.  Many sensible water policy reforms would have very positive implications for energy policy.  For example, environmentalists often advocate for water conservation to protect water resources.  Water conservation would also save energy.  Similarly, some energy reforms, like phasing out coal-fired power plants, could dramatically improve water quality by reducing the impacts of both coal mining and coal consumption.  Many such opportunities for double benefits are too valuable to pass up.

For all these reasons, the set of recommendations that the DOE was supposed to produce, referred to as the Energy-Water Research and Development Roadmap, is sorely needed.  The Roadmap would be aimed at “summarizing needs, prioritization criteria, major gaps, innovative technical approaches and associated research needs, R&D priorities and strategies, and associated policy, regulatory, and economic assessments.”  It is to include “regional issues and cross-cutting interdependencies” as well as “guidance for regional R&D issues, extramural federal and state agency R&D participation, and guidance for technology transfer and commercialization with industry.”  But five years after its due date, the Roadmap has still not been publicly released. A Sandia National Laboratory researcher involved in the project reported that between 2007 and 2009, DOE asked for 22 rewrites.

Of course, creating a roadmap is only a first step.  We also need to take the journey, and that will require effort from all levels of government as well as from the private sector.  But a comprehensive roadmap still would be a very good place to start.  The Obama administration should compel the completion and public release of the Energy-Water Roadmap Report.  The government’s and public’s ability to understand and act on these critical issues at the federal, state, and local levels is poorer for its absence. 

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Dave Owen is a Professor of Law at the University of California, Hastings, College of the Law.

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