A quarter of the energy supply in Ontario is provided by renewable waterpower (1). On the flip side “generating steam and pumping, treating and heating water consume 40% of Ontario’s natural gas and 12% of our electricity usage.” (2)
The water/energy nexus is all around us here, but like the lost rivers
that used to run through the City of Toronto, the energy intensive nature of water provision is invisible to most people. A 2011 RBC water attitudes survey notes that “Only four in 10 (40 percent) Canadians make the connection between water and electricity, understanding that it requires energy to treat and pump water; one-third (32 per cent) don't think at all about the connection.” (3)
Locally there are many opportunities for water and energy – and by extension GHG – savings still to be tapped. A panel of experts and the water community recently gathered at a Canadian Water Resource Association event Water & Energy: Urban Infrastructure Explored to discuss the connections and solutions between these two major resources.
As expected, the panel did discuss technological solutions and roadblocks, such as conservative attitudes in Ontario towards new engineering solutions. According to Patrick Coleman of Black and Veatch, “We are still using the same terminology, thinking and prescriptive design that has existed for 100 years.”
The discussion contrasted these attitudes to other advanced approaches used in Europe, such as in-pipe hydroelectric power generation through sewage and water pipes. As Coleman noted, “We still flare biogas at most of our sewage treatment plants in Ontario, so the green biogas the Germans and Swedes are capturing we are just burning…” Coleman also pointed to a new trunk sewer built in Toronto that has enough “hydraulic head to power 30,000 homes” – that said, we are not currently taking advantage of the opportunity.
But as is often the case in sustainability, a substantial part of the discussion focused on the social, governance and behavioral challenges to improving water infrastructure and the water/energy choices made by the population.
Panelist Paul Norris of the Ontario Waterpower Association said what is needed is simply a “blue box solution”, with water and energy conservation mimicking the acceptance of household recycling by Canadians in the 1990s.
But others called for greater dialogue and engagement outside the water community, bringing coordination between human and technical systems. Dona Geagea of Waterlution talked about the need to use social technologies to bridge the gap between the technical expertise of water professionals and the public and young leaders through innovation labs, hackathons and other digitally supported events. She also floated the idea of kitchen table dialogues with water-engaged people sitting down with family and friends to spread the word one coffee at a time.
This approach echoes work on Civic Dialogues as a way of bringing together experts, public, and industry to accelerate sustainability. A recent focus of the Network for Business Sustainability, NBS notes that, “dialogues start with experts but broad engagement is vital.” (4) Using examples of a BC project Meeting the Climate Change Challenge (MC3), and the Alberta Climate Dialogue, expert exchanges are then followed by conversations among community members. Business can also get involved as a community member or a facilitator. (5)
Along similar lines, panelists also highlighted issues of justice and equality related to water and energy. Bryan Karney, of the University of Toronto, brought up the example of Hamilton, Ontario. Low income people often live closest to Lake Ontario and drink the cheapest water to transport, while the wealthier live uphill at the top of the Niagara Escarpment and require much more highly energized water. However, there are no price breaks or incentives on water for those with lower incomes. Paul Norris also talked about diesel dependent far north communities in Ontario that need innovative water/energy solutions to grow.
Four years ago the Polis Project on Ecological Governance report Ontario’s Water-Energy Nexus, by Carol Maas (6) highlighted the opportunities at the water/energy nexus. To paraphrase, they were to inform the public and policy makers of the connection, bring together water and energy expertise to collaborate, integrate water and energy monitoring, reporting and efficiency programs, and prioritize conservation over new infrastructure.
The panelists at Water & Energy: Urban Infrastructure Explored echoed those themes in their wide-ranging conversation. Much work is still to be done to shake our complacency and make the water/energy connection.