The Water-Energy Nexus is the Next Big Thing: Three Case Studies from CodeInnovations.org


By Chris van Daalen, Principal Investigator Code Innovations Database


Whether we’re talking people, ecosystems or the economy, what they say is true:  Water is Life.  From lead-polluted drinking water in Flint Michigan, to a moratorium on building in Whatcom County, Washington, it’s painfully clear how dependent all of us are on water infrastructure for safe clean drinking water, wash water, and yet more water to carry away our wastes.


What is harder to see, is that we also rely on energy infrastructure to deliver an uninterrupted flow of clean water.  For the most part Americans feel secure, but clear signs say we cannot assume future water supplies will be stable in light of a changing climate, evolving technology, and dependency on aging and obsolete infrastructure.


There are many facets to the water-energy nexus, more than can be covered in a short article. To comprehend just part of it in the real world, I want to focus on three case studies published on The Code Innovations Database, an online resource I manage for the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild.


US Department of Energy (DOE)


In 2014, the US DOE issued a report “The Water-Energy Nexus: Challenges and Opportunities” that details the many ways that “energy and water flows are intrinsically interconnected… due to the properties and characteristics of water that make it so useful for producing energy and the energy requirements to treat and distribute water for human use.” (1)



The report identifies six “Strategic Pillars” as the logical structure for their “long-standing” R&D efforts, and which they claim “lays the foundation for future efforts.”  Let’s hope that proves true!


Another seminal report on the Water-Energy Nexus is an extensive literature review published August 2013 by the Water in the West program at Stanford University (2), which I would highly recommend for anyone who wants to gain a handle on this nexus.


Non-traditional water sources and treatment in Bellingham, WA


Most of us aren’t even aware of how much energy it takes to treat and transport water to our taps and toilets. I certainly wasn’t, not until green building innovator Dan Welch of [bundle] design studio opened my eyes with his net-zero energy, net-zero water “Birch Case Study home” in Bellingham, WA. This is the only home I know of within an incorporated city limits that was permitted to not connect to city water and sewer, by proving to code officials they had it covered. Welch and his family use harvested rainwater for drinking water and everything else. He designed an innovative “batch composting” toilet system that uses no water and safely fertilizes the garden. With no toilets to flush, they treat their own wastewater (mostly greywater) in a very small septic system.


His electrified ultra-efficient home produces all its own energy with solar panels. Not only that, but by being off the water grid he is helping the County save additional energy and money that would have been used to transport potable water to, and wastewater from his home to the treatment plant.