Quick: what is California's largest single consumer of energy?

Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment Senior Fellow Dick Luthy posed the question during a recent talk at the U.S. Senate. Luthy, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Engineering Research Center for Re-inventing the Nation's Urban Water Infrastructure, was a featured speaker at the "Road to the New Energy Economy: Re-engineering Water for Power" briefing April 25 in the Senate visitors center. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was the event's honorary host.

Stumped? The California State Water Project, which moves water from reservoirs in the north to cities in the south, is the state's biggest energy hog. Luthy used the bit of trivia as an illustration of the massive amounts of energy required to meet demand for clean water. Statewide, about 19 percent of electricity and 30 percent of natural gas is used to move, treat and heat water. That load will only grow if new urban water infrastructure technology isn't implemented. Further, mounting population and climate change pressures intensify demand and competition for water.

"But we have a window of opportunity before us to do things wiser and better as we reinvest and rebuild our urban water infrastructure for the Twenty-First Century," Luthy said. "This is an ideal time to innovate."

The solution begins with a paradigm shift. Pointing to advances in technology that capture energy and produce high-quality water from wastewater, Luthy called for innovation focused on wastewater as a resource. New technologies can capture and use the energy content of wastewater's organic matter and nitrogen to generate energy while providing a reliable, local supply of highly treated recycled water. "Imagine if we could transform our nation's most reliable waste stream from a liability to an asset."

Reusing water from wastewater in arid Southern California alone could provide about half a billion gallons a day for agriculture and other non-potable uses. Nationwide, the new technology could save water, energy and taxpayer money, while creating jobs and maintaining America's global competitiveness. This is beginning to happen, Luthy said, but such advances require investments and financial incentives for research, demonstration projects and financial incentives.

Luthy also called for more focus on storm water reuse and construction of decentralized systems to avoid long-distance pumping and produce water for reuse where it is generated and where it is needed. These strategies, combined with conservation and efficiency measures, could go a long way, Luthy said.

The window of opportunity will not last, Luthy cautioned. Federal support of water research and development has been flat for 40 years and investment in U.S. water infrastructure lags by $50 billion a year, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. In contrast, China is investing $60 billion a year in water infrastructure - nearly double that of the U.S. "What's needed is a commitment from government, partnerships among utilities and academia and additional private sector investment that can bring these resources to the marketplace."

Rob Jordan is the communications writer for the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow Dick Luthy with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Credit: Sandy Schaeffer