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The Unholy Triumvirate

On Earth, energy has been married to water for four billion years? in dew condensing to drops, in the feathered lightning of monsoonal clouds. The energy/water contract is inviolate, sealed by the laws of thermodynamics. Humans have fiddled with the marriage to enhance their well-being, but they cannot break it. Starting on the day we dreamed up money, the flows of energy and water became inseparable from flows of cash. Water, energy, and cash?an unholy triumvirate, a thoroughly interdependent, patterned, topsy-turvy system. Three aphorisms describe the system:

Every energy recipe says: "Add water."

Every water recipe says: "Add energy."

Every human/energy/water relationship says: "Add cash."

Outside the kitchen window, energy/water and financial costs entangle hopelessly and hopefully. Small airplanes gas up to seed clouds. Neighbors move solar water heaters around the roof to catch the most rays. Kids open the hydrants to cool off without paying. A power plant steams off white clouds into the sky's white clouds. A donkey in far off Niger walks in circles pulling a rope that lifts a bucket from the well. The purity of the waterflow coming home speaks to you as an electricity bill. Hopefully, the rapture of the water/energy wedlock momentarily overwhelms the fractiousness of broken pledges?to be kind and do no harm to others who are joined by the water/energy marriage.

This essay is a little elemental marriage analysis as I attempt to play matchmaker, counselor, pastor, diplomat, and cheerleader for greater harmony.

Every energy recipe says: "Add water."

All the fuels (biomass, geothermal, hydrogen, uranium, coal, natural gas, petroleum) that convert water to steam to drive turbines and create power survive by water.

Distant watersheds provide the water to harvest and mine fuels. Water controls dust, replaces withdrawn petroleum, slurries coal, or, most voluminously, restores mined landscapes. Other watersheds sustain factories that concentrate "dilute" ores like uranium; refine mixed fuels like petroleum crude; clean "dirty" ores like high sulfur coal; irrigate crops for biofuels; or turn silicon into photovoltaic solar cells. Still other watersheds support the aquatic-powered transport of enriched fuels by slurry, navigable river, train, or truck.

Finally, the greatest thirst occurs in the watershed of power plants. Here, water has three big uses: Water to create steam to spin the turbines that generate electricity ("boiler water'); water to cool the waste heat and maintain the boiler pressure so the power plant won't explode ("condenser" and "cooling system" water); and, in coal-fired plants, water to clean the noxious sulfur fumes from the smoke ("scrubber water'). Boiler water for power plants and factories is the second largest US user of water after agriculture.

Shortages of water at any of these stages can stop the flow of electricity, information, goods, and services, and increase the cost per kilowatt.


The water/energy marriage requires us to rethink what's "best." Any form of energy must be wed to water, but as compassionate humans we seek to meet our energy needs through a marriage that demands as fair a water dowry as possible.

The marriage is not a nostalgic quaint arrangement like water wheels with grain mills in pastoral English countryside. Ninety-eight percent of the current US energy mix must still be paired to the appropriate watershed. Local waterflows and weather still dictate the water/energy matrimony, especially the choice of mine sites, power plants, fuel types, and cooling systems. Only the remaining two percent?wind, solar, thermal, fuel cells, and photovoltaics?ease up on the demands for water to help generate power. Once installed, wind, fuel cells, and solar have no dependence on large water flows for cooling and processing.

So let me matchmake a few power sources and water.

Nukes and water: I always wondered why nukes occupy the most beautiful riverside real estate on the Columbia River or the seacoast of California or New England. In their 1990 nuclear plant designs, sites were chosen because the plants consume 20 to 30 percent more waterflow per kilowatt than fossil-fuel plants. The nuke/water marriage requires large water bodies to prevent blow-ups. For safety, nukes combine energy and water at lower temperatures and pressures, making them less-efficient converters of fuel to steam. This inefficient relationship releases more heat, and needs more water to stay cool.

The community (all marriages are community affairs) may disapprove of the nuclear power because of radioactive waste, plant security, or costs. In my role as marriage counselor, I would add the huge water dowry. Even coal, the bugaboo of climate change, would make a better husband for water, saving billions of gallons of waterflow yearly, even after consuming more water for sulfur removal. Nuclear engineers, sensing the difficulty of new nukes finding a watershed home, have proposed the water-saving pebble reactor (see page 40) to keep their lineage alive.

Hydropower would seem to be the perfect match for energy. After all, water is both the kinetic energy spinning the turbines and the "fuel." How intimate! No boilers. But reservoir water has a hidden dilemma. In the arid West and arid nations like Egypt, reservoirs can consume more gallons per kilowatt than do the cooling towers of nuclear power plants. Tens of thousands of gallons of water, sitting behind dams waiting to spin the generators, evaporate under the desert sun.

And this marriage is always contentious, as downstream fish, farmers, crops, and factories want water at times that conflict with hydropower demands. The hydropower marriage is filled with carping family members.

Geothermal steam generators seem to be "free," already packaged marriages from deep earth. Perhaps, a Las Vegas special. Steam zooms out from the earth, spins turbines, and escapes to the atmosphere. But the marriage can end abruptly. Once the geothermal steam is "mined" out, the power plant must close. The water cost per kilowatt has been more than reservoirs or nukes.

Only recently have a few geothermal plants tried to prolong the union by recapturing and returning condensed steam back to their geothermal wells. In Sonoma, CA the hot rocks of water-poor geothermals have begun to run dry. A hungry utility proposed a $40 million project that would inject all the county's treated wastewater into the deep earth so it can boil back to the surface and spin turbines. Marriage counselors take heed. Do we want more geothermal energy or more water in the river? Who's to decide?

Biomass fuels, in arid lands, suffer from problems similar to hydro-dams. Biofuels can require irrigation that is water-intensive per kilowatt hour. If the water must be pumped to the fields, then we need water/energy to run the pumps plus water/energy to grow the crops plus water/energy to gassify the biofuels back to energy. Is this always better than thermal power plants?

Fuel cells.The Apollo program worked intensely to optimize the water/energy union in outer space. Water is a petite resource out there. Matrimony occurred in an alkaline fuel cell that was compact and reliable. The hydrogen and oxygen traveled in Apollo in a cryogenic form (frozen), and the fuel cell "waste" product, water, served other purposes within the capsule. Performance was 70-percent efficient, which is better than most of my relationships.

In the future, the fuel cell marriage will become regenerative. Using photovoltaics, the "waste" water will be electrolyzed to H2 and O2 during the day; at night, they will be reused to produce electricity. If the water/energy wedlock is to be rapturous, then the fuel cell is our most perfect model of wedlock.

Every recipe for clean water says: "Add energy."

Dirty waters and saltwater have little potential for long-term human relationships. It's clean water that sustains. The active agent in this marriage is energy, and understanding the relationship requires reference to those inviolate rules of thermodynamics.

High-quality freshwater has more potential energy?the ability to assimilate salts and other chemicals?than polluted water or saltwater. Clean water has more inherent energy to do work. Concoct rock candy, for instance. Dissolve more and more sugar until the water refuses to dissolve any more. (That's when you add the wick to crystallize the candy.) This point (at which water will accept no more) is the moment where you've used up water's potential to chemically "bind" the sugar into solution. The water's worked, absorbing and holding the sugar in solution, and has now exhausted its potential.

Purifying water is the opposite process. It's taking the sugar back out of the water. Purifying requires active energy as well as the discipline and tools to undo water's grip on sweets and poisons. All kinds of energy?mechanical, biochemical, radiant?can take "exhausted water" and restore its potential (which is perhaps why "purity" has such metaphorical moxie). To repeat, every recipe for clean water says: "Add energy."

The work necessary to take pollutants out of the pollutant/water union is especially hard. Water dissolves and holds onto more substances than any other liquid on Earth. It is the "universal solvent" (i.e., pretty promiscuous).

To help purification, there are probably as many "dirty water counselors" as there are therapists and pastors dealing with human relationships. They too become specialized, mainly as divorce counselors to help exorcise salts, metals, toxics, or nutrients. Dirty waters support a booming legal and consulting growth business. Looking for a job? The future lies in purifying water with low energy inputs.

The problem is that nature takes its time. When nature purifies, its schedule can't be rushed and can't be located at just the spot where it's most convenient. To clean water faster and more predictably than the sun, rivers, microbes, plants and soils, we humans try to mimic nature's ingenuity at double or triple time. We invent machines such as wastewater and desalinization facilities. We construct giant stirring rods to mix more air into sewage so that bacteria will eat and digest wastewaters faster. We mimic the sun with chlorine or ozone gases to destroy harmful bacteria. We mimic soils that filter and absorb toxics with charcoal filters that need furnaces to reactivate their cleansing powers.

For instance, a town of 7,000 might have a sewage plant containing four pumps, sludge thickeners, and a chlorinator. Treating 1,250,000 gallons of daily sewage will require one million kilowatts of electricity over a year's time. This equals about 175 tons of coal and 410,000 gallons of water for mining and processing the fuel and cooling the power plant. (It does not include the energy needed to manufacture the chlorine.) The operating costs of this town's sewage bill are about 80 percent electricity.

Towns and cities can deal with the energy needs for clean water by finding less energy-consumptive methods of sewage treatment, like John Todd's Living Machines or nanotech membranes; and by water conservation that reduces the volume of sewage. But this marriage has a sinister aspect. To save on energy costs, some towns and cities prefer to spend money lobbying for ways to let water remain dirty. They shun the marriage counselor and wastewater treatment and harm the conjugality of watershed love.

Salt water and war

The most energy-intense marriage of the water/energy union can be found in desalinization plants. They guzzle so much energy that desalinators operate only in locations with excess petroleum, or where waste heat from power plants (especially nuclear and geothermal) can be recycled. About 60 percent of the world's desalinization plants dwell in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia produces 50 percent of all distilled water on the planet; distilled water makes up 70 percent of the kingdom's potable water supply. The city of Riyadh pipes in desalinated water from from the Gulf, 300 miles away, in a grand extravagance of energy-intensive pumping plus energy-gluttonous purification. Because of its energy burden, desalinization produces only one-quarter of one percent of all drinking water.

But desalinization is a grand tool with huge security implications. Desalination remains the wet dream of the Middle East, a "peace pipe" to end 5,000 years of bickering. Could the correct water/energy design become the permanent road to peace? Picture the Saudis constructing a pipeline to Palestine for their crude. The refinery would employ Palestinians who would sell a portion of the resulting petroleum as fuel (with boat transport through the Mediterranean), and use the rest to desalinate saltwater. They would sell the freshwater and gasoline to their own people and to Israel, which would employ Palestinian farmers and sell produce back. Water and energy would forge a cash/water/energy union, a holy triumvirate. It's worth a try. No other strategy has stopped the war, torture, property damage, revenge, and so much sadness.

Every recipe requiring water says: "Add energy."

It would be pleasant if water behaved like a dog. "Here, Water. Here!" and water would flow to your feet. But water's untrainable. Within three days, you must spend the energy to bring yourself to water.

For millions of years, humanoids and humans took themselves to the water, because carrying water took exorbitant personal energy and adequate containers were hard to come by. Water is heavy and bulky?8.3 pounds per gallon. But we wily creatures have always looked for water to be the dog, to come to us on demand. This aspect of the water/energy marriage says: to transport water requires energy.

Five to ten thousand years ago, to convey more water more quickly for longer distances, oxen, horses, donkeys, burros, and camels replaced Jack and Jill. Beasts of burden bore large clay ollas and waterproof bags. Many times, water transport meant survival. Apaches evading American armies had a reputation for riding one horse to death, then skinning out its intestines, filling the intestines with water, slinging them over another horse's neck and riding on. Horse gut "canteens" and horsepower meant freedom.

Today, industrial energy moves water from wells beneath the earth, from river channels and over hills. Airplanes consume fuels and spray chemical "seeds" to move water from clouds to earth. Ships transport gallons to isolated islands, or pull icebergs to Arabia.

Forty percent of all water used in the US ascends 100 to 300 feet before use. Some pumps lift water from 3,500-foot wells. Other pumps push/pull water as high as 2,000 feet in pipes crossing mountain divides.

The planetary super-marriage occurs at Tracy, California where millions of acre-feet of northern Californian water are lifted and shunted as far away as San Diego. Six pumps at Tracy, energized by twenty-two 500-horsepower electric motors, can lift 5,800 gallons a vertical distance of 200 feet each second. That's about twenty-four tons of water (think five African elephants) ascending 200 feet each second before being dumped into aqueducts. In a typical year, the Tracy pumps lift about 2.2 million acre-feet and consume 575 million kilowatts, enough electricity to power 80,000 homes for the year. California droughts have become droughts of energy even more than of rainfall.

So what makes this aspect of the water/energy marriage more graceful? Shorter distances and heights. The closer to home your water source, the less work needed to enjoy hydraulic pleasures. The more you rely on gravity, and the less you pump, the more energy is saved. As cities sprawl, the future energy/water relationship will strain and, at times, rupture. The next twenty years will need to find ways to collect and recycle water onsite and rethink water uses so we don't transport high-quality water hundreds of miles for trivial purposes like flushing toilets and washing streets.


During the 1970s drought, San Francisco citizens conserved so much water that their water bills shrank and the utility could not garner enough revenue to pay its less elastic costs (water treatment and pumping and labor). Citizens did such a good job saving water that the utility raised their water bills! In another coastal town, the citizens conserved water and recycled graywater so efficiently that the remaining sewage became too viscous, and hardly moved through the pipes. Odors and mosquitoes burst from the perforations in manhole covers. At night, the utility secretly opened hydrants and poured precious drinking water into the sewers to flush the pipes. To encourage conservation it hid the truth. Effective conservation meant investing in a whole new system of pipes, not just low-flow appliances.

Cash can upset the energy/water marriage. It's not cash's fault. From a system's point of view, cash flows configure and connect differently from water and energy flows. Cash belongs to the totally human financial community of investment capital, taxes, subsidies, grants, contracts, international loans, shareholders, and price competition. The financial community has a life of its own (interest, profit, depreciation). Profits are tied to selling more water or more energy?a feedback destructive to nature. In addition, higher-quality water usually costs more. Interest and depreciation rates have yet to include the restoration of natural capital (fuels, water) instead of asset capital.

Even deeper, water and energy are not strictly commodities. They have lives as entities, as events valued in themselves. The beauty of a waterfall is not the same as that of a dammed lake. I remember Hawaiian native friends fighting the Vatican, which wanted to tap their sacred geothermal vents. The steam was alive and historic and full of meaning. The difference between free and harnessed could not be measured in money.

Similarly, water and energy have a basic human rights value. No one should die of thirst or drink contaminated water. No one should freeze or collapse of heat exhaustion in their home. If some citizens can't afford these minimal comforts, it is the nation-state or private utility that must provide them?no matter how it hurts profits.

When the financial community tries to commodify the sacred and the humane, it twists and reshapes the water/energy union. At the moment, it's all denial, a dysfunctional marriage with a conceptual wall separating the "water" partner from their "energy" partner and both from their accountants. Californians wryly summarize the water/energy/cash histrionics with their famous one-liner: "Water flows downhill, except when it flows uphill towards money."

In short, the existence of the unholy triumvirate calls for a new contemplation, a thoughtfulness about connections and configurations of everyday events and things in nature and society. In staring at beautiful whirling eddies and reverse waves in the Grand Canyon, rafters taught me to first see how the patterns of the Colorado's water/energy could convey us through rapids. They also made clear that the intensity of the flow had to do with the price of electricity upstream at Glen Canyon dam. One could look inside a refrigerator with the same eyes: one view for the amazing ability of an energy system to make ice from water, and another at the monthly bill. Once, in fact, I was asked by Allen Ginsberg to explain to a newly immigrated Tibetan monk how a refrigerator made ice, and stuttered my way through an explanation of the energy/water marriage. He laughed, poked his head deeper inside the 'fridge, and said: "Yes, elements together is thinking of the sacred." He patted this nice machine made of earth, water, energy, and air; and I decided to write this essay.