2015 proved to be another weird weather year around the country, especially for Texas. 80 degrees and dry in Austin on Christmas Day, spring wildflowers in bloom, and kids playing outside in shorts – a surprise ending to a wild ride of drought followed by devastating floods followed by drought and then more floods.
Texas is used to drought-flood cycles and extreme weather, but last year the pendulum seemed to swing wildly from one to the next. And climate models predict intense swings for the future as well: After the next flood is another drought, which will likely be more intense and longer than usual due to climate change.
Unfortunately, it seems like during our brief respites from drought, we also take a break from thinking about water scarcity. After the year we’ve just had, this should not be the case – water security should be at the top of Texans’ minds going into 2016. But there are two promising developments for our water future: the Clean Power Plan and examples that cities in other water-stressed Western states are setting.
In 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized the Clean Power Plan, the first-ever cap on carbon emissions from the power sector. It may not be intuitive to think about water when talking about carbon pollution and energy, but it should be. Coal, natural gas, and nuclear power consume 580 gallons, 310 gallons, and 460 gallons of water to create one megawatt hour of energy, respectively, or the equivalent of powering 330 homes for an hour.
That’s why the Clean Power Plan could be one of Texas’ most effective water planning tools: By prioritizing clean energy, the plan encourages the use of less water-intensive energy resources. For example, negligible quantities of water are required to generate power from wind and solar PV, and virtually no water is required for energy efficiency. These same resources also generate negligible carbon emissions, and would therefore be a sensible solution for meeting the Clean Power Plan’s goals.
Safeguarding energy and water reliability means ensuring Texas continues to grow and draw businesses to our state – and the Clean Power Plan will help us get there. Compared to the state’s 2012 power generation mix (the baseline year used to create the Clean Power Plan’s targets), meeting the plan’s goals would save 124,000 acre-feet of water in 2030 (the year in which the standards will fully be in effect), roughly the equivalent of Caddo Lake in East Texas. Those are savings worth pursuing.
For inspiration on making start energy choices, Texas could look for examples in other drought-prone Western states and even to cities within the Lone Star State.
- Georgetown, Texas: If state policymakers and regulators in our capital just looked a little north, they’d see the example set by the city of Georgetown, in Williamson County (arguably the most conservative county in the Austin metro area). In 2015, Georgetown’s mayor set in motion a plan that would take the city to 100 percent renewable energy by 2017. The move was spurred mainly by economic considerations but there will be water benefits as well, particularly worth noting since the Austin area was one of the last to recover from the state’s multi-year drought.
- Las Vegas, Nevada: A recently proposed deal would make Las Vegas one of the largest cities in the US to go 100 percent renewable. In a city known for energy-sucking, 24-hour casinos, solar energy and energy efficiency programs could mean huge water savings – especially in the desert. Unfortunately, just like in Texas, state officials are working to undermine the city’s efforts by challenging energy efficiency programs and making the market harder for solar companies. As many Western cities far outstrip their state regulators in terms of progressive clean energy policies, backward steps from state leadership are becoming an unfortunate trend. The news is especially discouraging considering the chronic droughts in states like Nevada.
- San Diego, California: Even in a state with advanced clean energy and climate policies, the intensity of the drought has led to a lot of scrambling to figure out water scarcity. Fortunately, the city of San Diego announced in December 2015 that it would go 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. This goal is bold and commendable – it would make San Diego one of the greenest cities in the world.
But in an incongruous move, the city also opened the largest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere, which came online in November 2015. Although it’s supposed to provide San Diego with a “drought-proof” water supply, desalination is incredibly energy-intensive: Powering the desalination process with traditional energy resources like coal and natural gas means we’re using water to make water. However, one way to make “desal” more of a water-friendly technology is to pair it with renewable energy – which would work well with San Diego’s new goal.
Going into 2016, the best way Texas can create a more reliable water future is to begin crafting a state strategy to comply with the Clean Power Plan. “Business as usual” already gets us nearly 90 percent of the way toward meeting the 2030 goal, but Texas could achieve greater water savings by going much further. Secondly, Texas would do well to follow the example of cities that have gone all-in on renewables. But although renewable energy goals are an excellent water-saving tactic, San Diego’s desalination plant shows we need to think about energy and water holistically to achieve greater efficiencies in both sectors.
Regardless of what kind of crazy weather 2016 brings, now is the time to start thinking about smart water-saving energy solutions.