All posts by Holly Roberts

School of Media and Journalism

Relationship Status of Water and Energy: It’s complicated


Source: Steven Worster 2012 – Flickr

Look at the picture below, take a deep breath, and then ignore it. If it looks incredibly complex, that’s because it is it is. The diagram illustrates the relationship between water and energy. Now, forget about the image for now because we’re about to break it down to the core concepts.


Source: US Department of Energy (2014)

Codependency: A Common Relationship Flaw

When you think water conservation, what comes to mind? Shorter shower? Watering the lawn less? One of the most significant ways to use less water is by using less energy. To demonstrate the dependency that energy and water resources have on each other, consider the following morning routine:

You wake up and turn on the shower to let it get hot: 2 gallons

You use the loo and look at the morning monster staring back at you in the mirror:  3 gallons.

You suds up, rinse off, and jump out of the shower: 5 gallons

You brush your teeth: 1/2 gallon

You make breakfast, throw your dishes in the washing machine, and press start: 10 gallons

So when you add that up, how many gallons does your morning routine use? If you said a little over 20 gallons, you’re wrong.

Here’s the steps you didn’t consider. The water you used was pumped out of a reservoir, cleaned, and delivered to your house using electricity. The power plant that provided that energy required water in the generation of electricity.

Conservation is an environmental issue, but it also has important economic implications for US consumers. As public water supplies and energy compete for good ol’ H₂O, energy prices are increasing to balance the equation. One reason for price increases is the pumping of groundwater, which can be far below the surface and expensive to pump.

Do you like avocados and chocolate? Well, stresses to water and energy resources may decrease the supply of certain water intensive foods.

What Water does for Energy

The nation used about 201 billion gallons of water each day to produce electricity in 2005, according to the United States Geological Survey. That’s about three times the amount used for the public water supply, and that number doesn’t even include the water necessary to power hydroelectric plants.

The primary use of water in the energy sector is for thermoelectric plants, which create steam by burning a fuel to power a generator. Cooler water is then used to condense the steam to be used again.

Most of the water that is used in thermoelectric power plants is returned to the original source, but some is consumed in the process. About 2 gallons of water are consumed for each kilowatt hour (kWh) of energy produced. To put that into perspective, the average person uses 10,932 kWh in a year.

What Energy does for Water

Energy is necessary in the extraction, treatment, distribution and use of water. These processes account for about 13% of all electricity consumed in the US.

When population increases, the water demand goes with it. As we need more water we are having to drill deeper in the ground to get fresh water, like in California. Going to greater lengths to get fresh water has its health and financial consequences.

It’s Time to Talk

This is a picture from the San Juaquin Valley that shows how much the ground has sunk over 52 years. The main cause of this is from extracting water from reservoirs deep underground, causing a process called land subsidence. This has serious consequences for future water availability and stability of homes.

Dr. Tamlin Pavelsky, a professor of global hydrology at UNC, is concerned about how drought and population growth will play a part in these processes.

“And as we have more and more people move into the South…that means we need to provide water for a lot more people and a lot more businesses. And, to the extent that we should be concerned about drought here in the South, it’s largely to do with that demand side of things.”


Source: USGS,

Now you know that the relationship between water and energy is one of the most important issues for today’s population. These two resources are critical to daily activities for you, your family, and your future. Start talking more about how we need to conserve water, save energy, and preserve our way of life.



A Close Call: North Carolina and Drought


Source: Flickr-IRRI 2008

A four-year drought at the turn of the century acted as a wake-up call for many North Carolinians, making efficiency a top priority. Conditions were so bad that over 200 municipalities were encouraging or enforcing some type of water conservation. Some restaurants were not permitted to serve water from the public supply. In Raleigh, code enforcers would drive around suburban neighborhoods and fine people $200 for watering their lawns.

North Carolina is known for its wet climate –typically getting more rain than most of the other states. Being that North Carolina typically has plenty of precipitation, the state is not as accustomed to drought preparedness. As a result, the drought between 1998 and 2002 in NC led to panic.


Source: Flickr- Grennell (2009)

“Often times, unfortunately, it takes a shortage or crisis to make people really focus on something,” says Cindy Shea, director of the UNC Sustainability Office.

UNC Chapel Hill was no exception to the hardship and took action across the campus to conserve water. The university gets its water from University Lake, which was several feet below normal. Orange County could count the number of days in water reservoirs, so UNC had to act fast.

Fresh drinking water was not the only usage at risk with the drought conditions. Shea says that about a million gallons of water a day are evaporated in the summertime to cool buildings. The largest use of water on campus is for the 5 cooling towers that chill water and send it to buildings for temperature control.

Shea explains that water will then return to the plant much warmer than when it left. She says that 17 percent more water needs to be added to each cycle because of evaporative processes. That’s a lot of water in just one summer – imagine adding several years consumption together.

Since the drought at the beginning of the century, the university has reduced potable water use by 60%. Some of the initiatives enacted through the UNC Sustainability Coalition are as follows:

  • 200 stormwater structures put in place like green roofs, cisterns, infiltration beds, and permeable pavement parking lots that water can travel through
  • Elimination of dining hall trays, saving 12,000 gallons of water each week
  • 1000 kilowatts of energy that comes from electricity generated from landfill gas
  • All academic buildings being LEED Gold certified since 2011

As UNC has decreased their water use, they have decreased their energy consumption, and vice versa. Just a decade later, the university is being recognized for the amount of funds they’ve invested in research and efficiency.

Campus Sustainability Day Cube

An advertisement for Campus Sustainability Day at UNC – Chapel Hill in 2005. Source: Flickr

“Sometimes when I go to conferences, people will be presenting about their strategic water planning and they’ll be talking about the innovative things they’re doing,” says Shea. Then they’ll throw up a slide of UNC Chapel Hill and talk about what we’re doing because we are so much further ahead than most campuses.”

UNC wasn’t the only organization made vulnerable after the drought of the early 2000’s. Duke Energy was seriously affected by the low reservoir levels in Orange County and neighboring counties. Water is an crucial part of the energy generation process, because large volumes of water are necessary to cool power plants. Jordan Kern, a professor at UNC, does research on energy efficiency and financing, as well as hydrology. He explains how the region’s largest energy producer had a close call with their power plants.

“I don’t think they would have a great handle on what would happen if we had a drought that was worse than the early 2000 [drought] in particular,” said Kern. “That one came close to causing some pretty significant problems for Duke Energy. They almost lost their nuclear power plant, and that’s sort of a worst case scenario is you have to shut down one of those.”

Duke Progress Energy Power Plant at Night No. 6

A Duke Energy power plant hear Arden, NC. Source: Flickr (2014)

Kern explained that, fortunately, power plants were kept operational. Though, the company is still working to improve their resiliency. There is reason to be optimistic about the North Carolina’s energy and water future, but there is still room for sustainable innovation.


Where the Wind Blows – Onshore vs. Offshore Wind Energy

A group Alstom's ECO 100 wind turbines.
Source: Alstom 2010 (NREL)

As long as the wind blows, it is sure to be part of the energy conversation.

The wind industry has proven itself as a key player in providing energy to the public.

If the industry is going to continue growing, new infrastructure will be needed to deliver electricity from turbines to consumers.

The question is, which technology makes more economic sense to develop–onshore or offshore?

Is Onshore on Target?

Traditionally onshore turbines have dominated the wind market, with the first turbine constructed in the late 1800’s.


  • People are familiar with onshore wind. We can point to many examples around the world of how successful onshore wind can be. Denmark is receiving over 40 percent of their electricity from wind and 75 percent of that comes from onshore turbines.
  • The infrastructure necessary to transmit electricity from onshore turbines is considerably less expensive than that of offshore. Onshore wind is also competitive in the greater renewable market, as it is the cheapest form currently available.
  • Onshore turbine production could act as a boost to local economies. If turbines are installed closer to their manufacturing sites, their value is likely to stay closer.
  • There would be less emissions from transporting wind structures if they are installed closer to the manufacturing site.
GE 1.5 MW wind turbines at the Grand Ridge Wind Energy Center in Lasalle County, Illinois.
Source: Invenergy LLC 2008 (NREL)


  • Onshore wind speeds are more unpredictable than offshore. Because turbines are optimized at a specific speed, they could lose efficiency if wind is too slow or too fast.
  • Similarly, onshore wind direction changes much more often. Turbines must be facing the direction of the wind to operate efficiently. Advances in technology have led to new turbines that have some ability to pivot towards the wind.
  • There are people – climate deniers, big oil executives, etc. – who are against the growth of onshore wind. Some think it’s an eyesore or noise pollution, others think it endangers birds. There is little evidence supporting these claims, but public buy-in is key to the success of the onshore wind industry.

Misinformation can even make its way into reputable sources from the government, as Dr. John Bane explains, professor and head of the Carolina Ocean Observations Laboratory at UNC-Chapel Hill said.

“I can show you something on one of the federal organization          websites that is just flat wrong, in a couple of ways,” Bane said. “And this leads to  people reading that and thinking, ‘Oh, well this is on a federal website, it must be the truth.’”

He said opinions and inaccuracies can affect how people vote, both in the public and the legislature.

Is Offshore the Reliable Option?

Offshore wind technology is much less developed than its predecessor. It was first implemented almost a century later than onshore. The first offshore wind project went into effect in the early 1990’s near Denmark.


  • Offshore wind turbines are tend to be more efficient than onshore because wind speed and direction are more consistent. Conceivably, less turbines are needed to provide the same amount of electricity as onshore turbines.
  • Offshore wind is just that – offshore. The “not in my back yard” argument can’t be used if you can’t even see the turbines.
  • Similarly, some see onshore wind farms as threatening farm or other private land. Offshore wind does not interfere with land use.
  • Offshore wind could benefit a marine ecosystem in which it is constructed. Some studies suggest that offshore wind farms protect sea life by restricting access to certain waters and increasing artificial habitats.
December 8, 2009 - Horns Rev 2 Offshore Wind Farm, Installation of Siemens 2.3 MW Offshore Wind Turbines, North Sea, Denmark. (Photo from Siemens AG)
A wind project in the North Sea near Denmark. Source: Siemens AG 2009 (NREL)


  • The technology necessary to transmit energy from turbines in a body of water is expensive. This could change as the industry matures, but this makes it hard to justify offshore over onshore.

Dr. Harvey Seim, a professor and chairman of the department of marine sciences at UNC-Chapel Hill, said the investment in offshore is worth it–decisions should factor in long time scales.

“In the long term, I think offshore wind is a lot more robust an         investment. I think the wind field is likely to be more reliable and predictable. It certainly has a greater energy density, a significantly higher energy density,” said Dr. Seim. “But there is a big capital investment that has to be factored in to all that. However, if it’s managed properly, it should be recouped by the facility over the long term.”

  • Offshore turbines endure more wear and tear from wind and waves than onshore. This brings up operation and maintenance costs, further distancing the price from onshore.
  • Because offshore turbines are harder to get to, it could take longer to fix problems and restore them to function properly.
  • Renewable energy cooperatives allow small town citizens to be stakeholders in new development. This leads to local economic benefits, especially to rural areas. It is currently not feasible for a small town to finance an offshore farm.

So, who wins?

It’s hard to say what’s on the horizon for wind energy given fast paced nature of the industry. Because the offshore wind industry is relatively immature, the capital cost and operation and maintenance are very expensive for a new project.


Cities are Thinking Differently

About 54 percent of the global population lived in cities in 2014, and that number is only going up. Cities haven’t had the best relationship with the environment up to this point. Carbon emissions, runoff pollution, and the destruction of natural areas are growing concerns.

A growing society needs to consider ways to minimize these impacts for the sake of public health and longevity. There is this idea of a smart city – using more information to make better decisions – that may be the solution.

What exactly is a “smart city”?

The idea of a smart city has been brewing for some time, but its terminology has only been gaining traction in the last few years. Loosely defining the concept helped to unite people with similar objectives, without restricting its possibilities.

“There are probably 50 different definitions,” said Steven Wysmuller of IBM’s Analytics team.

“Folks knew there were challenges they were facing and trying to put it in context of a term, such as smarter cities, was a way to start to unravel those challenges,” Wysmuller said. “To really start engaging the right folks, whether it’s the citizens in the community to government elected officials, to private industry that had solutions but needed an outlet to figure out where to go with them.”

The fundamental definition of a smart city is to use less energy and water, encourage people to engage more with their communities, and improve public health.

One of the basic ideas of smart cities is that there is no one-size-fits-all plan for all cities. Cities are unique in the landscape they are set in, the climate they experience, and the infrastructure they contain. Smart cities can include a range of technology to help people make decisions.

What are some of these technologies associated with smart cities?

These “smart” technologies are concerned with the efficiency of electricity, water, waste, and transportation. Think of finding a parking spot immediately with a phone app instead of driving around for 15 minutes. Again, the aim is to reduce the amount of energy used while increasing the quality of life.

Information, like smart parking, is going to come largely from the Internet of Things (IoT). This is the information that is shared between systems and machines, as opposed to being shared by a person. An example of this would be a home thermostat communicating with a cell phone app that allows for remotely controlling temperature settings.

December 19, 2011- Kevin Donovan uses an app on his iPhone to connect to his thermostat in his town home. town home. (Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL)

Gathering more data about usage means that people can better understand the peaks and falls in their utility bills. They can then make adjustments to decrease their bill and the amount of energy used. Simple behavioral changes, like gradually cooling a house rather than immediately cranking the AC, make for big efficiency increases.

What might a day in an ideal smart city look like?

It’s Monday morning in the office, and a smart thermostat gradually starts bringing the temperature up.

As you leave for work, your home temperature decreases to significantly reduce the energy that would’ve been used.

You are running late, but you are able to use an app on your phone with real-time traffic data. This finds the quickest alternate route, which is already being implemented in Amsterdam. This saves time, money, and reduces emissions from vehicles.

The restaurant down the street cuts down on energy costs by installing solar panels. They pass on the benefits of those savings to their customers by buying locally sourced food.

The office building holds large conferences, meaning water consumption spikes. The building is equipped to recycle storm water, reducing costs and energy associated with water distribution.

On the way home, LED street lights come on as your car gets close. When there are no commuters, the lights turn off.

There are possibilities for innovation in many daily activities, without compromising people’s lifestyles.

Where do smart cities exist?

Smart cities can be built from scratch or can come from advancements to technology and infrastructure in existing cities. The important thing to note is that becoming a smart city is a process that doesn’t end. A smart city continues to innovate into the future.

San Jose, California is one of the cities leading the way to becoming “smart” in the United States. Using the IoT and new sensors, the city gets real-time data on air quality. This information can help policy makers and citizens make changes to increase the quality of life.

The number of “smart” cities is sure to grow in the future, each one being unique. Government agencies, like the Department of Transportation, are starting to praise cities that are thinking more about the future. The Smart City Challenge allows cities to compete for federal funding to implement their innovative ideas for transportation.

Sounds great, but what are some of the challenges to implementation?

There are some major obstacles to overcome before a smart city revolution takes place. The integration of new technology and knowledge into communities is likely one of the most difficult hurdles to surpass. Technology disparity still exists in surprising numbers across America, especially for minorities and low income citizens.

It’s not just the some folks don’t own a smart phone. In 2014, the United States Census Bureau found that 25 million households in the country were without regular internet access.

The success of a smart city relies on not just the compliance of citizens, but more importantly their engagement. The value of smart technology will not be realized if people don’t know how to interact with the new information.

“There is a big gap between the technology out there and the users who can use it and what they can get out of it,” said Amy Aussieker, the executive director of Envision Charlotte. “It’s still a matter of it’s an enormous amount of data and it’s also educating people on how to use that data and then making decisions.”

Once technology is equally distributed, the educational element takes shape in a couple different ways. Citizens need a comprehensive explanation as to what is changing and if it will change their daily lives. This isn’t the kind of thing to be taught in a textbook.

The way to inform the public is to engage them and elicit collaboration. Businesses, government organizations, nonprofits, and your next door neighbor should all be talking about what it means to live healthier and happier.

Equally as important is an education of why changes are being made. People need to understand the big picture – the environment is suffering, but we can likely mediate the causes over time. Changes in behavior will likely come from a population that is informed and passionate about the well-being of their planet.

January 24, 2013 - Len Nagy and his children Sofia, 8, and Alexander 6, learn about renewable energy at an interactive display the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Visitor Center. (Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL)

The overarching theme here is collaboration and acknowledgment of how one person’s actions can affect an entire community.

“It has everything to do with the human interaction,” says Bruce Clark, the digital inclusion project manager in Charlotte. “Particularly when we think about getting things done across multi-organizations with different interests and what not. There’s an element of storytelling that’s really important in all of this.”

Could Utility Companies be Phased Out and People Make Their Own Energy?

Utility companies have been providing energy to centralized grid systems for many decades. Renewable energy has come a long way and threatens society’s dependence on these companies, like Duke Energy. But, it is still hard for people to imagine abandoning the traditional energy system altogether. When prompted on the subject, students were hopeful but realistic about the barriers keeping society from going all green, all by themselves.


New Innovations are Changing the Energy Conversation

The prospect of grid defection is likely making utility companies shake in their boots. Defection is the idea that energy consumers rely less on the traditional grid system. Shifting away from the grid won’t be immediate but some think it to be imminent.

Alternative energy technologies are getting cheaper, but they are not ready to replace the grid. Renewable energy storage is still inefficient and expensive. The variability of alternative energy, like wind and solar, make storage a high priority.

Effective and affordable storage technology may not be here yet, but it’s getting close. Tesla made waves in the renewable energy sector last year when they introduced the Powerwall. Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the goal is to transform the world’s energy infrastructure.

It may be too early for Tesla to talk about such large scale changes. But, the world should be paying attention to the company’s latest innovations.

The wall unit powers a house after being charged by the grid or solar panels. The idea is to avoid peak electricity rates by charging at night. People who have solar panels can aim to be grid-free with the batteries.

The Powerwall technology has been popular among larger companies, but homeowners are not rejoicing yet. Tesla and other companies developing batteries will have to continue innovating to overcome some issues.

Tesla’s Powerwall alone costs around $3000, and then there is the cost of installation. The battery would help your energy bill but not eliminate it. The average American will not invest in something that takes years to pay itself back.

Buying a Powerwall makes the most sense if you already have solar panels. Storing free energy is the desired effect – not just cheaper energy. Low-income households will have to wait awhile to see any benefit from this technology.

The Powerwall is more of an electricity backup right now – an expensive luxury. A typical American household uses 31 kWh a day. A Powerwall can only hold 7 kWh at one time, enough for a few appliances.

Batteries that are hitting the market now are not perfect, but people are paying attention. An Australian power company just installed the nation’s first Powerwall for a 12-month study. The company hopes to show the potential benefits of integrating batteries into the grid system.

Utility companies should be considering adapting to a changing energy infrastructure, not fighting it. Advancements in solar technology and energy storage give hope to a greener future. Whether or not the grid will be part of that future is still uncertain.

Tesla Powerwall Battery Product. May 1, 2015.

Why Tesla’s Announcment Could be such a Big Deal. May 1, 2015. Washington Post.