Water and Power

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Published on November 5th, 2012  |  Discuss This Article  

NBC Revolution



Update: Did you catch last night’s wink, illustrated above? Share your thoughts in the comments!

We’re working with our friends on NBC’s new drama Revolution to incorporate green elements — or “winks” — in every upcoming episode.

So, what’s a wink? In this context, a wink may be a verbal and/or visual cue that touches on an environmental theme. Every Monday morning, our scientist Jeff Opperman will share a blog post that offers a hint regarding that night’s wink.

The first airs tonight, and here’s your hint. On Tuesday, we’ll post an image revealing the wink, so check back with us tomorrow to see if you’re correct!


Water and Power — that was a book I read in graduate school, and its title highlighted how, particularly in arid regions, controlling water was the key to economic and political power.

But as we recover from the most recent major storm, I’m reminded there’s a much more literal interpretation of that phrase.

The electrical grid is the biggest and most complex machine ever created, and water-supply systems are also engineering miracles that do their job so well, so consistently — but almost invisibly — that most people have no idea how they work, or even where their water comes from.

But like our own bodies’ great systems — say the circulatory and respiratory — electricity and water systems can’t function without each other.

Scientists and policy makers have a term for this interdependency: the energy-water nexus.

In simple terms: for a species that tends to cluster in concentrated towns and cities, if we want water, we need power. And if we want power, we need water. (It also means that if we conserve electricity, we conserve water and vice versa).

That’s why a drought can cripple energy generation, as rivers get so low they can’t provide sufficient water to cool power plants. And that’s why a huge storm that knocks out the power delivers the incongruous reality of water shortages amidst a world where water seems to be everywhere, turning city streets to rivers and turning rivers into raging torrents.

That’s because when the power goes out, our intricate, and often overlooked, water-supply system can grind to a halt. We need electricity to pump water from the ground, move it from place to place, clean it, distribute it, and then clean it again when it flows into sewage-treatment plants. In California, the water-supply system uses twenty per cent of the state’s total electricity consumption.

Natural disasters remind us of how valuable these interconnected systems are. Houses go dark and the taps go dry or deliver water that may not be safe. The media is awash with tips on how to deal with a shortage of clean water. These include boiling water, with the flame evoking people’s original method of applying power to secure clean water.

Thankfully, for those of us in the United States, we generally experience only brief interruptions in water and power supply. But what about a world where water and power are not available, day after day, year after year?

That’s the post-blackout world of NBC’s Revolution, in which the characters struggle to secure sufficient supplies of clean water in a world without power. Revolution provides a thought experiment for water, stripping away the technology to reveal first principles: water comes from nature. In the absence of a functioning supply system, the healthiest water will come from land that is healthy — lakes, streams and rivers fed by water that filters through forests and deep soils.

It’s not just a thought experiment. It’s the reality for over a billion people in the world today. This reality also concentrates us on first principles — people need reliable water and energy to achieve health and security.

While the number “billion” may be dispiriting, this is an exciting time for progress and innovation. In regions without electricity, solar panels can be used to run water pumps; simple filtration systems can remove contaminants. These innovations can provide people with clean water long before electric grids and water utilities finally reach them.

Further, protecting the source of water—healthy forests and rivers — is gaining broader acceptance as the foundation of sustainable water management. The concept has deep roots — the Adirondack Park was originally established to protect the Erie Canal’s source of water — but is now spreading across the developing world. In Latin America, The Nature Conservancy is promoting water funds, a financial mechanism through which the beneficiaries of clean water invest in the people and projects that maintain healthy sources of water.

In our interconnected world, taking care of nature is the foundation for ensuring clean water for the future. And because a healthy source and cleaner water means less treatment and filtration, this also saves energy.

Water and power.

[Image courtesy of NBC.]

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