Smarter Water and Energy Conservation Policies

by | Jul 22, 2010

Smarter water and energy conservation policies are intertwined

The droughts in the West and South. The gyrations in the price of oil. Just these two realities alone have taught us how much water and energy will define our futures.

Yet, what isn’t always obvious is the connection between the two. Maybe it’s because most of us thought of water and energy as commodities until recently. And why not? The price of gas was so cheap, its impact on the environment so little understood, that most of us didn’t pay much attention to how much we bought at the pump. And water was so available that communities such as Fresno, Calif., thought nothing of charging homeowners flat monthly water bills, no matter how much water they used.

Water and energy are intricately linked, though. A lot of water goes into making the everyday staples of our lives. It takes 10 liters of water to produce just one sheet of paper, 10,855 for a pair of jeans, and 15,500 for a kilogram of beef. Meantime, the systems that send water to our factories, homes, farms, malls, and offices have their own hefty energy requirements. About one-fifth of California’s electricity is used for pumping and treating water. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that around $4 billion is spent annually on the electricity to run water and wastewater utilities.

Yet, municipalities lose up to 50% of their water to leakages, and agriculture wastes 60%. Our water resources are coming under increasing threats of contamination.

That’s why the status quo for how we handle water and energy won’t cut it in the future. The demand for these two resources is going to increase dramatically as the world’s population reaches a peak of 9.4 billion in 2050. By 2025, two-thirds of the world is projected to face water scarcity. At the same time, we have to cut the amount of energy we’re using so that we can slash the carbon emissions we’re sending into the atmosphere.

The challenges are growing. But so are our abilities to react. Just as Google has put so much more information at our fingertips, other kinds of technology can make us smarter about how we monitor and manage water use, so we can conserve both water and energy.

By using sensors, smart meters, and software, we can collect and analyze data about water use in real time in all kinds of water systems. We’ll be able to identify leaks in water transportation systems, so that we’ll use less energy and lose less water while moving it from reservoirs to cities or suburbs.

Our sewer systems will become smarter. That will lead to less sewage being dumped into lakes and rivers and fewer sewage backups, which use a lot of energy.

Smart water meters will help consumers and businesses figure out how much water they’re using and how to save water. These systems will let governments price this resource more carefully, balancing supply and demand.

These changes are happening now. The 60,000 citizens of Dubuque, Iowa are leading the charge. Citywide, Dubuque is rolling out smart water meters and technology so that consumers can pinpoint when they’re wasting water. Dubuque is pairing the detection system with a program to encourage people to make changes by offering rebates for the costs associated with repairing the leaks. This is no small problem. According to surveys, 30% of households have water leaks, ranging from leaky faucets to toilets that run too much.

The government of the Mediterranean island nation of Malta is going a step further, rolling out a new system for its water and electricity grids that could serve as an example for cities around the world. The replacement of all of the nation’s 250,000 analog electricity meters with new smart electronic devices and the integration of water meters and advanced IT applications will enable remote monitoring, management, meter readings and meter suspensions. The idea is not only to monitor consumption and problems in homes and offices, but to pinpoint issues in the water systems, such as leaks, so that they can be fixed immediately.

We can also get smarter about where our water comes from and what kind of contamination it might be subjected to. Cleaning up water uses energy, something we need to avoid. Nonprofits such as the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries and the Nature Conservancy, as well as governments, including Ireland’s, are using sensors and advanced analytics to study and monitor rivers, lakes, and coastlines. Beacon has implemented real-time monitoring of New York’s Hudson River using sensors, robotics, and data crunching technology to understand any physical, chemical, or biological changes in the river.

This kind of work is a step toward the ultimate goal of analyzing entire water ecosystems from the rivers and reservoirs that are the sources of our water, to the systems and pipes that bring it to our homes.

We can’t afford to continue to think of water in isolation. Or ignore the impact that pouring a glass of water, buying a pair of jeans, or not fixing a leaky valve has. We have to make every drop and—given the link between water and energy–every bit of energy count.

Sharon Nunes is Vice President of Big Green Innovations in IBM. This organization was commissioned by IBM’s chairman in November 2006 and was given the mission to launch new businesses for IBM using the commpany’s information technology expertise, and materials & processing expertise, to solve critical problems around environmental issues. For the past two years, Sharon has led a worldwide team of IT and domain experts who are developing solutions in carbon management, photovoltaics and water management. Together with clients and partners, IBM is demonstrating how information technology plays a critical role in managing the world’s critical resources.

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