By Commissioner Debra Shore, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

December 9, 2015

This Earth Day, let’s celebrate our most precious natural resource—water. It’s essential not only for our daily lives, but also for energy security and environmental sustainability.

Here’s why: It takes an abundance of water to produce energy. And it takes lots of energy to provide clean water and wastewater services. The interdependence of water and energy, known as the water-energy nexus, provides many opportunities for efficiencies, cost savings, and a healthier, more sustainable planet. At American Water, we’re pursuing these opportunities and working with customers, partners, and policymakers to create innovative solutions.

Numbers tell the story of the water-energy nexus. Approximately 40 percent of all freshwater drawn from rivers, reservoirs, aquifers, and other sources in the United States is used to cool thermoelectric power plants. And 2 to 4 percent of all power produced in the United States goes to the operation of water and wastewater systems.

This means that more efficient water systems would save energy and measurably reduce carbon output. In fact, even though the population is growing and water demands are increasing, the water and wastewater industry can realistically achieve an 8 percent baseline energy savings by 2030.

That’s a win for everyone.

Residential and business customers would benefit from lower utility costs and more efficient services.

Communities would benefit from growth in jobs in water-system construction and related fields such as architecture, engineering, industrial machinery, and truck transport. Job growth would expand the local tax base.

With the energy savings, utility companies would operate more efficiently and lower costs. The policymakers who regulate and oversee water treatment and distribution would facilitate the delivery of better, more affordable services. Current and future generations would enjoy the improved stewardship of water, air, and fossil fuel resources.

All these benefits are within reach but it will take investment and innovation to achieve them.

The Need for Investment in Water Infrastructure

Replacing aging infrastructure is critical. Nearly one of every four gallons of treated water is lost before it reaches customers due to leaks in pipes. This also means one-quarter of the energy used to treat and move that water is wasted. The American Society of Civil Engineers projects that pipe replacement needs in the coming decades could reach more than $1 trillion—a huge sum, but also a significant job creator. As many as 27,000 jobs are created for every $1 billion spent on water infrastructure.

Likewise, we need to replace or refurbish aging pumps. Improving water pump efficiency by 55 percent to 80 percent across the water sector would save an estimated 10 million megawatt-hours per year. That’s enough electricity to light a city the size of Chicago for over two ears.

But fixing and upgrading decades-old infrastructure is just part of the solution. Many cutting-edge technologies and approaches in the water sector can improve energy efficiency.


Here are three ways that American Water is putting innovation to work to create more efficient and sustainable systems.

  • DemandSide Management and “Intelligent” Customer Communication. American Water’s affiliate in Monterey, California, is beginning a pilot program in smart monitoring and communications.  Participating customers will be able to request text or email alerts if they have a likely leak, if their usage is about to bump them into a higher rate block, or if their water bill is approaching a certain dollar value. This pilot—called Advance Meter Infrastructure—helps customers keep their bills low and limit unwanted usage.
  • Innovative Water Treatment Technology. American Water has developed technology that decreases the energy used in the wastewater treatment process by 50 percent. The technology is called NPXpress and we’ve implemented it at seven wastewater treatment plants in New Jersey and New York.
  • Alternative energy sources. We are also integrating clean energy sources into the operation of several of our treatments plans. For example a solar electric system supplements 20 percent of peak usage at our Canal Road Water Treatment Plant in New Jersey, and in Pennsylvania our Yardley Water Treatment Plant Facility runs entirely on wind-generated energy purchased from local provider.

Policies to Advance Progress

State and federal legislators and regulators are key to achieving the many benefits of the water-energy nexus. A recent resolution adopted by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), for example, provides a forward-looking framework for state regulators to “proactively explore the water-energy nexus and pursue regulatory reforms that might be needed to unlock further progress toward enhanced water and energy efficiency.”

At the federal level, policymakers can leverage the water-energy nexus by taking a holistic approach to policies.  For example, if the EPA adopts its proposed rule limiting greenhouse gas emissions from existing generation units, having clarity that states may account for measures taken across industries would be important.  If this were done, it would allow the water and wastewater sectors to help states fulfill their Clean Air Act Section 111(d) plans.  Reduction of energy usage in the water sector could have a measurable and lasting impact on carbon output. 

The bottom line: Investment and innovation in water systems will protect and secure not only our essential water resources, but also our energy resources and our environment.

Now that’s something to celebrate on Earth Day.