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NEW: Water, Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink: Adding Water to the Sustainability Equation, Betsy Otto, American Rivers
NEW: Sustainable Infrastructure Solutions, Chris Lotspeich, The Second Hill Group
NEW: Living Buildings and the Competitive Advantage of High Performance, Brandon Smith, Cascadia Region Green Building Council
Green Chemistry: Turning the Ship, John C. Warner, University of Massachusetts Lowell, Center for Green Chemistry
Life Cycle Assessment: A Tool for Sustainable Manufacturing, Tom Swarr, United Technologies Corporation; Jim Fava, Five Winds International
The Quest for a Manufacturing Model that is Sustainable, Mike Bertolucci, Interface Research Corp.
Sustainable Investing and Portfolio 21, an interview with Carsten Henningsen, Progressive Investment Management
Green Energy 3.0: This Time, It Is Different, Jackson W. Robinson, Winslow Management Company
Green Insurance Products, Stephen G. Bushnell, Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company
Providing Incentives to Coffee Suppliers to Produce High Quality, Sustainable Coffee, Ben Packard, Starbucks Coffee Company
Talking Until You’re Green in the Face: Environmental Communications Comes to the Fore, Don Millar, The Element Agency
On the Power of Purchasing and the Potential of 1%, Terry Kellogg, 1% For The Planet
Promoting Green Products and Services: Cure for Asthma and Global Warming?, Arthur B. Weisman, Green Seal, Inc.
Power of Local Government Dollars, Michelle Wyman, International Council of Local Environmental Initiatives, USA (ICLEI-USA)
The Green Wave
Climate Change as a Driver of US Market Behavior, Truman Semans, Pew Center on Global Climate Change
Ford Motor Company and the Green Wave, Dan Esty, Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy
Has the Era of Green Business Finally Arrived?, Joel Makower, GreenBiz.com
Turning the Ship: Environmental Transformation of the U.S. Economy, Brian Kuehl, Harvard Loeb Fellow and The Clark Group, LLC
By Betsy Otto, Senior Director, Healthy Waters Campaign, American Rivers
You know the old joke: “Buy land, they’re not making any more of it.” Well, the same might be said about water. Only one per cent of the total water resources on earth are available for human use. Seventy per cent of the world’s surface is covered by water, but 97.5 percent of that is salt water. By 2025, UNESCO estimates that two-thirds of the world’s population - about 5.5 billion people - will live in areas facing moderate to severe water stress.
In his famous 1960s essay, Garrett Hardin coined the term “tragedy of the commons” for his notion that free access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource ultimately dooms the resource through over-exploitation. Water has always been artificially cheap to end-users. It’s priced well below its value because we think of it as infinite, a virtual free good. When it’s gone, however, it’s priceless. We have the geographic good luck to live in a water-rich part of the globe so we take plentiful fresh water for granted.
Even in the dry western U.S., we have long borrowed from far-away mountain snow packs and rivers to fill swimming pools in San Diego, irrigate golf courses in Phoenix, and fill industrial pipelines in El Paso. These dry cities consume far more than the 10 inches or less of rain they actually receive in a year. It is simply not sustainable. Even in the East water shortages are becoming a serious problem. Some regions in the U.S. have seen groundwater levels drop as much as 300 to 900 feet over the past 50 years. A recent Government Accounting Office (GAO) report noted that most state water managers expect either local or regional water shortages within the next 10 years under average climate conditions. Recent climate change reports suggest anything but average conditions.
Water, Energy, and Climate Change
We have been living beyond our water means, and climate change is going to make the problem worse. Global warming is disrupting natural water cycles, mainly the form, amounts, and timing of precipitation. The recently released International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report notes that more intense and longer droughts are occurring, particularly in the continental interior and the Southwest. Paradoxically, the frequency of heavy precipitation events has also increased, bringing massive flood damage and disruption. Precipitation in the mountainous West will shift away from winter snow – nature’s time-release water system – to rain. Putting in new dams to catch more of the winter rain is not the answer. That requires huge expenditures of capital, energy, materials, and thus, adds to greenhouse gases. Endangered salmon can’t swim through a dam. Rainstorms are more erosive than snowfall, carrying heavier loads of sediment that bind with pollutants and are expensive to remove from water supplies. We will have to adapt to the coming changes, but we can make it easier on our ourselves – and cheaper – if we start getting serious about using less water.
There is a very powerful water-energy nexus, but it is not well understood. It consists of two interrelated feedback loops: first, huge amounts of energy are required for basic water and wastewater treatment; and, second, enormous amounts of water are required to make energy. It takes a great deal of energy to develop, pump, treat, and distribute water for municipal, commercial, and industrial use (we’ll put aside for the moment, the enormous water-energy demands of agriculture). It takes a great deal more to deliver and treat wastewater before it is disposed. California water agencies currently spend more than $500 million per year in energy costs alone. In the United States, municipal water and wastewater systems use 75 billion kilowatt hours — 3% of total U.S. consumption of energy, as much as the entire energy-intensive pulp and paper sector.
The second feedback loop is in the water required to make energy. The electricity industry is second only to agriculture as the largest user of water in the United States. Electricity production from fossil fuels and nuclear energy requires 190,000 million gallons of water per day, or 39 percent of all freshwater withdrawals in the nation.
So, what does all this mean for business? As more water is required to meet our growing energy demands, water sources for cities, commercial buildings, and industry will be further strained. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) estimates that energy use for water supply and treatment in the U.S. industrial sector is expected to triple between 2000 and 2050 because of growth projected in inudstrial activity. It takes more energy to pump water from greater depths or greater distances as water tables drop and communities and industry have to look around for other sources. So every time any sector uses a little less water, we save not only water, but also energy and greenhouse gas emissions, and we help to prevent even more extreme climate disruptions to our water.
Businesses that reduce water use will save in water, wastewater, and energy expenses, and they will minimize their exposure to water supply shortages and future price spikes. New water technologies and processes offer a significant new market for business – everything from EPA-certified water efficient appliances and plumbing fixtures to low water-use industrial processes, and green building approaches like grey water reuse, green roofs and rain gardens.
The Good News: Water Efficiency Works
The Pacific Institute estimates that 317 billion gallons of water, or 39 percent of California’s 2000 water use levels, could be cost-effectively saved in the commercial, institutional, and industrial sectors every year. Investment payback on many water efficiency methods can be less than one year. Water efficiency not only reduces water demand, but postpones investment in infrastructure expansions, protects water quality and natural water levels and flows, as well as providing other environmental benefits.
Business can take steps to reduce water use in many ways:
• Intel operates semiconductor fabrication and assembly/test facilities in seven countries around the world. Water is a primary production input used to clean silicon wafers during fabrication and packaging, and ultra pure water must be used. Several of Intel’s plants operate in locations where water resources are limited. In Albuquerque, NM, Intel used an integrated water management system to increase water purification efficiency and to improve water reuse. The site has offset over 50% of its freshwater needs through water reuse.
• Abbott’s bulk pharmaceutical manufacturing plant located in Puerto Rico took various steps to maximize reuse of 2.5 million gallons per day of treated wastewater from the facility’s on-site treatment plant. Reclaimed water is now used within various plant systems that require large amounts of water, and collectively, these steps have reduced groundwater withdrawals and wastewater flows by over 1.3 million gallons per day.
• Southern Company’s electric generating plant in Cobb County, Georgia had a plant chemistry sample once-through cooling system that used 200,000 gallons of county water per day. A new system was installed that uses condensate water as the cooling water and river water as the “heat exchange” water. Plant water use was reduced by 140 gallons per minute, a savings of over 75,000,000 gallons per year, enough to supply 2,000 Cobb County homes’ annual drinking water needs. And at a cost of $2.10 per 1,000 gallons, the new system resulted in a savings to the plant of over $150,000 per year.
• Johnson Controls worked with St. John’s County, Florida to upgrade the county’s water metering technology. A development boom required hook-up of 3,500 to 4,000 new customers per year to the water utility, but physical reading of water meters was no longer feasible. Through a performance-based contract, Johnson Controls committed to a $7 million dollar loan to replace 18,000 aging meters with a new fixed-based, radio-read system connected to a central control room.
• As part of a broad green infrastructure program to minimize stormwater flows into its overburdened sewer system, the City of Chicago provides grants of up to $5,000 to homeowners and commercial building owners to install green roofs (roofs with plants that absorb rainwater and cool the building). Starting with 20,000 square feet of its own City Hall building in 2001, the city now has three million square feet under green roofs – more than any other city – and 24 companies have responded to the demand to install green roofs. Monitoring data show that the city hall green roof is as much as 30 degrees cooler in summer than surrounding conventional roofs.
• U.S. EPA recently launched its new WaterSense water efficiency labeling program for appliances, landscape irrigation products, and plumbing fixtures, based on the highly successful EnergyStar program. EPA estimates that if all U.S. households installed water-efficient appliances, the country would save more than 3 trillion gallons of water and more than $17 billion dollars per year, and reduce the need for costly water supply and treatment plant investments.
Barriers to Change
So, if investment in water efficiency provides such an obvious payback, why aren’t more businesses doing it? There are several reasons. First, water costs too little. In many places there is little awareness of the growing scarcity of water or the impacts of large withdrawals and discharges into municipal sewers because there is no price signal to conserve. Water and sewer charges in much of the country are priced below even basic O&M costs because it is politically difficult to raise rates and over time receipts fall behind expenses. And that doesn’t even include the burgeoning cost to replace aging infrastructure (the American Society of Civil Engineers recently downgraded the nation’s water infrastructure from a “D” to a “D-“). Some utilities even have disincentives to conserve, charging industrial and commercial customers “declining block” volume discounts for withdrawals and waste discharges.
So a first step is for more utilities to structure rates to encourage efficiency and conservation. Then, if we begin to capture the other “externalities,” like energy costs and global warming, through carbon taxes or cap and trade schemes, water efficiency efforts should get a boost.
The second reason that water efficiency is not as widespread as it should be is the lack of knowledge and training by engineers and other technical professionals within utilities and companies themselves. Many engineers and water experts were (and still are) being trained like it was still the good old days when energy and water were cheap and limitless and their use had no consequences. They don’t even think to do manage water differently, and they aren’t trained to know how.
Finally, there may be regulatory barriers that need to be overcome. For example, an industrial plant that succeeds in reducing water use by 80 percent but still discharges the same amount of pollutants in its waste will have a hard time meeting its water discharge permit without the benefit of the extra water dilution. Industry will need to look for ways to reduce the pollutant concentrations in its processes, and regulators will need to be willing to reconfigure permits to allow higher concentrations in exchange for the environmental benefit of reduced water withdrawals.
At the end of the day, if more businesses invested in water efficiency, the effects would be huge for not only for the individual enterprise but also for public infrastructure and even the global environment. We have an opportunity to make a difference by using water more carefully. It’s smart business and it’s good for the planet.