Liquid Energy: What the California Drought Has to Do with Our Energy Woes

When we look for opportunities to address multiple problems at the same time, we can unleash powerful and transformative solutions with benefits we might never have imagined possible. 

by Miles Unterreiner

As a record drought desiccates much of the Golden State – including areas vital to agricultural production, in which California leads the nation – policymakers are scrambling to react.

Governor Jerry Brown has already been forced to sign a $687-million rescue package (“bailout” seems like the wrong maritime image here) to deal with the short-term challenges posed by lack of water. But hovering over the current debate is the possibility that California could find itself having to deal with drought over and over again in the years to come as a result of global warming.

Last week, in an article in the Los Angeles Times, professors Catherine Wolfram and Simon Zetland suggested a way to address California’s short- and medium-term water supply issues while also reducing the long-term threat of global warming. “Water,” they pointed out, “is essentially liquid energy.” Moving water, heating it, distributing it, and cleaning it all require colossal amounts of electricity – electricity that is produced in large part by burning fossil fuels that contribute to global warming.

Halving Los Angelenos’ water consumption through conservation and efficiency measures, Wolfram and Zetland calculate, would save as much electricity as is produced by one of the three Navajo coal-fired power plants in Page, Arizona – recently ranked the eighth-dirtiest power plant in the country. The conservation and efficiency-based approach to water supply problems is one that we highlighted in two recent reports on Texas’ water challenges. There, water conservation provides additional benefits – averting the need to build expensive water storage and transport infrastructure and ensuring that water can be kept in rivers and streams, helping them to support a healthy array of aquatic life.

The broader point of  Wolfram and Zetland’s piece is that the California drought isn’t just a “water” problem. It’s a water problem, a climate problem, an energy problem, an economics problem and an environmental problem all rolled up into one big package. And the dynamics of the problem are changing all the time – the rise of the water-intensive process of “fracking,” for example, is imposing new demands for water in some places that already struggle to keep the taps open.

As a multi-issue think tank, we at Frontier Group are particularly alert to the ways in which societal problems increasingly transcend the “silos” to which they’ve traditionally been consigned. Our recent work on transportation policy, for example, emerged from questions we first started asking years ago as we considered policies to address global warming. Our recommendations on bonding for fracking wells were informed by how the federal government protects citizens from toxic waste sites. Even the water conservation and efficiency strategies advocated by Wolfram and Zetland can be informed by the many successful efforts at the local, state and federal level to encourage energy efficiency.

It may be cliché to say that “everything’s connected.” But increasingly it is. And when we look for opportunities to address multiple problems at the same time, we can unleash powerful and transformative solutions with benefits we might never have imagined possible.