How Farms Can Tend to the Energy-Water Nexus, Reduce Costs and Help Their Communities
Authors: Kate Zerrenner, Senior Manager of Energy-Water Initiatives, Environmental Defense Fund
Dylan Dupre, President and CEO, CalCom Energy
Across the country, farmers face unrelenting pressure to conserve both water and energy. From California to Texas, recent droughts and declining groundwater levels require more pumping to provide irrigation water for crops. Pumping water takes energy, as do many other precision agriculture tasks involved in running a successful farm today. This symbiotic relationship between water and energy use – often called the energy-water nexus – is taking its toll on America’s agricultural industry.
For most operations, the result is higher costs, tighter margins and, unfortunately for everyone, a less sustainable food supply.
Demand for food is expected to surge by more than 50 percent as the global population grows to 9 billion people by 2050. In light of this, how can farms adequately manage water and energy to ensure their survival and the security of our food supply?
The answer is not simple, but it is clear: integrated resource management. Farms must consider their use of water and energy together to ensure the optimal use of both. Doing so isn’t just good for the sustainability of our food systems, it’s good for the bottom line.
Managing water and energy as linked resources
The use of energy and water is tightly linked for the modern farm today. Reducing one often has the fortunate effect of reducing the other, as in the example of drip irrigation systems that use less water and, consequently, less energy.
Meeting local power needs requires water, and lots of it, for conventional fossil fuel production and even for hydropower and nuclear energy. Energy is used to pump, treat and distribute water and for collecting, treating and discharging wastewater. On the other hand, renewable energies like solar and wind use little to no water to produce energy.
Benefits of integrated water and energy management
Taking a holistic view on water and energy management can have multiple positive effects on a farm’s operations as well as on the community at large, most notably:
- Using less water and energy on a farm reduces the energy density of crops, lowering costs and improving margins.
- Switching to onsite renewable energy generation like solar places less burden on a community’s groundwater sources since renewables use significantly less water than conventional forms of electricity.
- By replacing or offsetting traditional fossil fuel power plants, renewable energy sources reduce carbon emissions and improve local air quality.
- Reducing water use while generating on-site renewable energy saves money that can be reinvested into the local farm and community.
Farms that make the switch to onsite renewable energy can reduce water use for the community at large since less utility-generated energy will be needed on the farm. This puts less stress on local natural resources and reduces carbon pollution, which has a positive effect on public health.
Taking a holistic view of water and energy management is a win-win for the local farm and community – creating a more reliable energy and water supply and ultimately, a more sustainable food supply for us all.