Our Drought Needs More Sun

Haynes-steam-plant-solarIt sounds like we’re saying, “This wildfire sure could use some gasoline!” But more sun may just be a big part of the answer to our drought.

There are cities that don’t have running water, and it’s past time to think about making big changes. Our water problem is out of hand and our energy use is making it even worse. We live in a democracy with freedoms, which means we can’t shout “Fire!” in a theatre but we really need to yell when our water resources are becoming victim to the never-ending search for cheap energy. Ironically, we have renewable energy goals at 30% in California, but no state goals for water conservation. Our state regularly needs to import water and we’re in the worst drought!  Should we just rip-out  landscaping, let lawns go fallow and replace them with drought tolerant options? Shorter showers, dirty cars, ban water thirsty crops such as cotton or rice or grapes, or go solar?  Did you know that  solar can conserve 87% of the water associated with your electric bill?

Back To Electrifying our Drought

We all know fossil fuels pollute, and we’re ignoring that they pollute our drinking water. The fact that we have very little drinking water left and we’re fracking it up for natural gas is ridiculous. California stopped 7 drilling sites this month after learning they had been illegally dumping their fracking waste into drinking aquifers. The kicker… The state and EPA allows them to pollute aquifers that are too expensive to reach for drinking water. This is a brilliant plan, because ECON 101 taught me if something is too expensive at one time, it will never be cost effective in the future… like deep-sea oil rigs or any technology.  The drought is expected to cost $2.2B & 17,000 jobs… but the cost doesn’t matter anymore, the water is polluted. We don’t just use exorbitant amounts of freshwater for extracting fossil fuels, but we also use a ton of it when we eventually burn it too!

The Sustainable Point

We should be desperately reducing electricity consumption, as well.  Ninety percent of global electricity generation comes from a water intensive source.  It doesn’t seem intuitive until you really understand steam generators.  Conventional sources of electricity create heat that turns water into steam that spins a turbine to generate electricity.  The faster the steam moves, the more electricity generated. The steam is kept in a closed loop because that would be a ludicrous waste of water. By creating a larger change in temperature (delta) for the closed loop, the steam will move the turbine faster and generate more electricity. You have two goals, generate as much heat as possible to make the closed loop super-hot and cool it down to create a large delta.


There are two commons ways to do this.  The gigantic cooling towers you see next to large power plants are actually giving off steam –  NOT radioactive gasses like The Simpsons led me to believe. Another alternative is to run your pipes through a larger body of water… say a lake or an ocean to cool down your closed loop.  Doesn’t this create warmer micro-climates that will disrupt local ecosystems? Yes.

Solution? Renewables, as always.  Not every renewable is right (HUH?). Solar thermal and geothermal can use a lot of water because they use steam generators. Solar PV & wind are usually the best options.  Solar PV uses a teensy bit of water during manufacturing and cleaning, but otherwise is very water conscious as seen on the above diagram.

chao-solar-panels-monterrey-park-ameco-solarHow much water does going solar save?

If you use as much electricity as the average US household, you will end up wasting about 2,000 gallons of water.  If you went solar, you could reduce that by 87%! The average Californian home uses 360 gallons per day.  Comparatively, 2,000 gallons seems like a drop in the bucket #PunIntended, but we’re still using 190 gallons per day on landscaping and  another 18% is lost to leaks.

AMECO Save Water Plan:

Gallons Saved per Year Activity
1,700+ Go Solar with AMECO
69,350 Accept you live in a desert and remove grass
26,280 Stop Leaks in Home*

Justification & “Math:”

In 2012, the average US household used 10,800 kWh, which we’ll round to 10 megawatt hours.  If you got all your electricity from solar, you would use 260 gallons of water to power your home each year. This is 4% of the water consumed by an all coal house. The water use mostly comes from cleaning them once or twice a year. During a drought, you might decide to suspend cleaning your solar system and use less then 260 gallons.

Californians get a diverse mix of electricity: Coal 7.5%, Hydro 8.3%, Natural Gas 43.4%, Nuclear 9%, Renewables (sans Solar) 14.5%, Solar .9%, and Mystery 16.4%. The mystery mix from California’s Energy Almanac website is a combination of imported electricity that did not have a specified source.  For the sake of argument, the unspecified “mystery” electricity didn’t use California water, so we’ll leave it at 0.  We used basic algebra & a weighted average to figure out the average use was about 1,980 gallons/year.

*Weird way to find leaks: Find a leak and re-use the water by putting a bucket or cup underneath a potential leak. Use the water for plants or fill your toilet’s reservoir. You can’t really do that with a toilet though.  Try putting some colored food dye (not yellow) in the toilet’s reservoir and check the toilet bowl in a few hours for any discoloration.  You can also put a water bottle in your reservoir to turn the 2.0 gallon  flush into a 1.5 or 1.0 gallon flush! Or, learn to read your water meter.  Check it after you make sure that everything in your home that uses water is turned off,  including the ice-maker in your fridge.  Then check it a few hours later to see if it has moved.

Going solar is also going to slow down the race for fossil fuel resourcing, such as fracking, which will help us preserve aquifers that the human race will need in the future.