Today, I am at the Sonoma County Water Agency celebrating the achievement of their goal to provide “carbon-free water.” That means that no fossil fuels are burned in order to provide water services (including capturing, cleaning, and delivering drinking water to taps along with treating wastewater). This achievement is a powerful proof of concept, showing how the water sector can be a part of the state’s ambitious climate efforts.
By beginning to explore the opportunities of clean energy nearly a decade ago, the Sonoma County Water Agency has been at the forefront of efforts to lower the carbon footprint of water. Sonoma County Water Agency’s efforts are one example of how the water sector can be a bigger part of the clean energy transition.
To further explore this concept, UCS has just released a new report: Clean Energy Opportunities in California’s Water Sector, which describes how water and wastewater utilities can become leaders in the state’s clean energy transition. Here are just three reasons why the water sector is key to achieving California’s climate change reduction goals.
1) It takes more than snow and rainfall to keep California’s taps flowing; it demands energy and lots of it, particularly during this record-setting drought.
Water and wastewater agencies are significant consumers of electricity and their energy requirements are expected to keep growing. Our report finds that water and wastewater utilities are in a unique position to help California adapt to drier conditions and to achieve its climate goals.
The entire water sector consumes close to one-fifth of California’s electricity, and its needs are growing. The amount of electricity used by water and wastewater utilities accounts for about half of the total electricity requirements of the water sector, or around 10 percent of California’s electricity. And this number is growing as the state pursues more energy-intensive groundwater supplies in the face of increasingly severe and prolonged droughts, such as recycled water, desalinated water, and groundwater pumping.
2) There is a significant lack of publicly available information about how much electricity and what types of generation sources are used by water and wastewater utilities.
Data are needed to understand where opportunities lie for the water sector to contribute to California’s climate goals.
Most water and wastewater utilities are not required to report publicly the sources and amounts of electricity used in a standardized format that would enhance the state’s understanding of opportunities for the water sector to be part of the climate solution.
3) Many water and wastewater utilities stand to benefit from making investments in clean, renewable sources of energy.
Water utilities have a significant amount of electricity purchasing power and they own assets and infrastructure that could host renewable generation facilities or provide flexibility for the electricity grid. New revenue sources are available to water and wastewater utilities that transition to cleaner sources of energy, including selling excess renewable electricity or receiving renewable energy credits, cap-and-trade proceeds, fees for accepting organic wastes for renewable energy generation, and, potentially, payments for providing fast-acting grid services. With renewable energy prices now more competitive than ever, clean energy investments would help the water sector achieve greater control over their electricity supplies and provide protection from fossil fuel price volatility.
This opportunity is especially timely given that California is mapping out a plan for deeper emissions reductions and Governor Brown has made a commitment to increase the electricity derived from renewable sources to 50 percent by 2030.
A combination of smart leadership within utilities and relevant state agencies plus thoughtful legislation aimed at collecting the needed information, developing a roadmap of opportunities, and creating incentives (or reducing disincentives) could maximize the water sector’s contribution to the state’s effort to reduce global warming emissions associated with electricity.