Burning Water | Wendy Wilson | TEDxBoise
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Burning Water | Wendy Wilson | TEDxBoise

November 8, 2019


Translator: Lisa Rodriguez
Reviewer: Rhonda Jacobs We live on a great big blue dot. A world that’s covered
with sea water, salt water. And only two percent
of that water is fresh, even though that’s what we need
to have every day of our lives. We can’t go three days without it. And yet somehow
we don’t take care of it very well. I remember back in the day, 50 years ago, the Cuyahoga River would occasionally
just burst into flames. I lived in a city nearby,
and, you know, wow! Who knew? Actual flames. Smoke over the Cleveland skyline. And that outraged people. Politicians even talked about it:
the environment, this new thing – passed new laws, and we thought
we solved the problem. But I’m here to tell you today,
that 50 years later, our freshwater resources
are still a resource in peril. We’re burning our rivers,
and burning our water in ways that aren’t as easy to see,
but are just as stupid, just as foolish. And instead of seeing flames,
what we see are toxic algae blooms, and fish kills, and dry river beds. So, how did we get here? Our economy has developed
kind of in an odd way where water utilities are one thing,
and energy utilities are the other and you think that water and energy
are totally different, and not related to each other. And because of that, we have made
some foolish choices, and wasted water, and built a system
that’s just plain inefficient. In fact, they’re tightly connected, and you can’t make one
without impacting the other. And this is because, well, to start with, most of our electricity is still made
the way it was 50 years ago, the “old fashioned way,” where you burn something
to turn water into steam, and that, then, in turn, turns turbines. Lots of turbines, all over America. Coal, natural gas, nuclear. But there’s so many power plants, that now half of all of our fresh
surface water withdrawals go to the energy sector. That’s more than
all of agriculture combined. And that’s more than all of our cities
and the two of them combined. I guess that’s because
it’s more than 50 percent. (Laughter) But every year as we have
more heatwaves and more drought, we have power plants
that we have to suddenly shut down because the water is too hot
to effectively cool the process. Or hydropower reservoirs
that just don’t have any water in them to generate electricity. So, as a society, as I said,
we’ve made some foolish choices. And we’ve created a collision course
between two things we really like a lot, which is having good fresh water
and having more energy and electricity. To the point where, now, the average
American household uses 250 gallons a day of water through all of the pipes
and hoses and faucets that you have. That’s 250 gallons every day. That’s a lot of water, and we really need
to conserve some of that. But before we can, we need
to address a serious problem. And that is, we have to find
the people out there that are taking 400-gallon
showers every day. I mean, who would do that? I mean, this is five gallons. This is enough to take a shower,
one would think. And I’m as shocked as you are. I want to know, who are these people?
How can we find them? Where do they live? (Laughter) We won’t have to look far,
because, it’s everyone in this room. We’ve become the prime
suspects in what I call “The case of the 400-gallon shower.” So, what is “The case
of the 400 gallon shower?” First lesson in water and energy dynamics: water is heavy, and it doesn’t run uphill. If you haven’t carried this bucket
to your house, full of water, or you don’t use a hand pump,
somebody out there is using electricity to pump water to your house. And there’s a lot of us out there. It really, really adds up
to be a lot of energy. In fact, our water utilities use – they have the biggest
electric bills of anyone. Fully four percent of all of the water –
or the electricity purchased in America, is purchased by water utility companies. And we as consumers use easily
more than twice that much to heat that water when it gets
to our house for some purpose. A lot of that is waste heat that goes
right down the drain in your shower. And when we waste that heat, somebody has to pay for it eventually. Unfortunately, the water companies
themselves aren’t wealthy, you know, evil characters;
they don’t have a lot of money. And they rarely have enough money to invest in effective
conservation programs. So much that fully 10 percent
of all of our treated drinking water in this country is lost in leaky pipes
before it ever gets to a consumer. And when the city runs out
of water completely, then they’ll do anything to get more.
Believe me, they’ll do anything. And all of the expenses associated
with finding that next gallon of water go way up. Especially the energy. They’ll dig deeper wells,
put on more pumps on the system, build a new dam hundreds of miles away,
pump it over a mountain. And if that city is near an ocean,
what will they think of next? Desalinization. Of course, the perfect answer. The ocean, 98 percent of all of our water
out there is in the oceans. What’s wrong with that? Desalinization uses 15 times
as much energy as any other water source. So we’re using – and this is a great idea,
we can just use energy to make more water. And on the other hand, we can use water
to make more energy. Right? This is a 100-watt Freedom bulb. It’s hard to find anymore;
you can’t really buy them anymore. But to run this for 10 hours,
takes a kilowatt hour. And while different fuel types
have slightly different needs, it’s the cooling towers,
and the once-through cooling systems that really suck water. So coal, nuclear, they use
a lot of water directly, and a lot of water indirectly,
through coal ash ponds and slurry, and that type of stuff. But natural gas, a lot of those combined
cycle facilities, use a lot less. They’re closer down to the six gallon
per kilowatt hour level. Unless, of course, the natural gas
is produced by fracking, in which case millions of gallons
is used in ways we don’t even know about and disappears into the ground
either to come up as pollution somewhere or somebody else’s problem. So what could be worse
for our water than fracking? Well, here in Idaho we are very pleased to have
zero carbon hydropower. And we use about
50 percent of our energy – Idaho Power comes from hydro – the other 50 is a mixture of coal,
mostly coal, and some natural gas. This takes 400 gallons to make a single
kilowatt hour of hydroelectricity to turn the turbines. Now, a lot of that goes down to
the next dam where it can be used again, but a lot of it evaporates. I mean, a lot of it evaporates. So, for example, on the Colorado River
over the last three years, the reservoir levels have been
just falling, falling, falling, because of evaporation and the drought. One big reservoir, Lake Mead,
evaporates in one year a million acre-feet of water. That’s as much as we have in all
of our dams in the Boise River Basin. That’s as much as we use to supply
all of the Treasure Valley farmers and all of our urban needs. Just gone, evaporated, in one year. Now really, since the electric
grid is produced – many different plants
doing many different things – it’s hard to figure out what
the water footprint of electricity is. So I added it all up,
divided by cooling types and by number of kilowatt hours
that we produce, and came up with a small statistic
that the water footprint of electricity is 40 gallons per kilowatt hour – forty gallons to run this light
for ten hours. This gets so exciting! (Laughter) Because 40 gallons just happens to be the amount of water that it takes
the average American for a hot shower, if you have a five-gallon-
per-minute shower head, and you stand there for eight minutes,
it’ll be 40 gallons. Isn’t that really coincidental?
That is so cool. (Laughter) But it’s not enough water
to actually heat that hot water. So this is 40 gallons. So the dot up here –
there should be a dot up here. Oh, move back just one – but the red dot – Never mind. (Laughter) The red dot is just the amount of water
you see going down the drain. But you’re not seeing the whole story. Because of the water associated
with heating up that wa – because the energy – gosh it’s so hard to keep them separate – to heat up that water, it takes about
nine more kilowatt hours of electricity. That’s nine times 40, it’s 360,
that’s a 400-gallon shower! (Claps) (Laughter) That’s the blue bar. That’s the blue bar.
And that’s what you’re using. Well, it’s water that’s used. And when we say “used,”
I mean, your toilet uses water. It moves on to some other, to a facility.
It’s used, polluted or lost. Forty gallons that’s used,
polluted or lost for every kilowatt hour of electricity. So I know some of you are sitting
out there right now going, “I don’t have this problem
because I use gas. I have a gas water heater,
not an electric one.” But you’re not off the hook unless
you’re off the grid on this problem. Because our grid, since we’ve mixed
all of those different fuels together, actually, to run your house for a month takes 40,000 gallons of water to be used, polluted or lost
somewhere else that you’re probably not seeing. I think this is the time I’m supposed
to talk about climate change. (Laughter) Because this is happening for every house,
every month, across the country. Forty thousand gallons. How many is that? Eight Hundred? No. Eighty thousands buckets of water is being used to keep your house
going for one month. So, of course, climate changes reduces
our reliable water supplies in a lot of different ways, and we can’t predict exactly
when the next drought is going to be or where it’s going to be, but basically, the hydrologic system
is out of balance. Our water cycle has been responding
to increased levels of carbon, and it isn’t going to change
in our lifetimes. All that carbon is already
out of the barn. So we have to get used to this new
water cycle that we have. And that’s why I think it’s time
to change what we’re burning, to stop burning water to turn
turbines the old fashioned way. Because we’re going to run out of water way, way, way before
we run out of fossil fuels. So there’s good news. Really good news. And that is, we don’t have to
burn water anymore. PV solar power, uses just about
a liter of water for every kilowatt hour. (Drinks water) And wind power uses
just a few teaspoons of water. That includes the water
to produce the panels, and the turbines, and operate them. Low-water solutions. So if we were running this country right and we had an energy system
that wasn’t wasting water, all of us really could take five-gallon-
and-a-few-teaspoon showers. So how do we get there? Simple things we have around the house. The first choice is always conservation. And if you reduce the time
in your shower by half then you will save half of the water. So a timer, which you can get
from United Water, will help you shorten your shower
from the typical eight-minute shower. You can install energy-efficient
and water-efficient fixtures. Something like this, a low-flow
shower head, pays for itself in a year. Oh, and then what else
do we have? Let’s see. Oh yeah! Saving the water –
saving energy saves water. So turn off the lights. Every time you turn off the lights – say you forget to turn off the light,
and you go to work in the morning, and you come home 10 hours later, you’ve just used not just the electricity,
but 40 gallons of water. So this is a new incentive to get people
to turn off the lights. It wastes a lot of water as well. So all of these personal
decisions are great. Conservation efficiency is important. Innovation is really important. Solar hot water heaters, hello,
we can install those a lot more easily than just about anything
that we can do immediately. But all of those decisions
have to be backed up by our agencies and our wider society. So here’s a cool idea. To address the problem
of evaporation on water canals, why don’t we shade the canals
with solar panels? That’s in India; that’s a little project
that I’m aware of. And then closer to home, why don’t we convert our feed lots
and dairies to biogas to generate biogas
and save water pollution and generate electricity at the same time. And heck, while we’re at it,
why should cows get all the good stuff? We could build net zero
waste water treatment plants as well. So it’s human impulse, I think, to want to have more of the stuff
we’re afraid of running out of. We want more energy. We want more water. Especially when it gets hot out. But we’re getting to the point now
where we can’t get more until we start using less. And maybe, to think this through, we need to form,
instead of two water utilities, one single problem solving unit, an energy and water service utility that could prioritize low-water
renewables and use our consumer dollars to fix the leaky pipes beneath the city. If we can just do that kind
of transition in our own heads and start this conversation
about separating our energy needs and our water needs
and always worrying about “more,” we need “more” of everything,
and start talking about “Let’s have enough water.” Let’s have enough energy
to run our new economy. Then if we do those things,
we’re going to have enough water to drink, water for our farms, and food to eat, and none of you are ever
going to get caught taking a 400-gallon shower again. (Applause) (Cheers)

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