Opportunity Flows

Lynn Broaddus,Director, Environment Program, The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread


Water treatment and delivery requires a lot of energy. Energy extraction and generation requires a lot of water. This is what we’ve come to know as the “water-energy nexus,” a name coined by Michael Hightower and his colleagues at Sandia National Labs 20 years ago.

Our current infrastructure was designed with the assumption that water and energy would continue to be cheap and plentiful. We now know that is not the case. Future projections are that we’ll need even more water and more energy to support a planet with more humans, all while resources are being exhausted and climate concerns further constrain our options. The Union of Concerned Scientists dubbed this projection the “water-energy collision.” Applying the brakes in time to avoid damaging our way of life, our economic well-being, and even our national security requires that we do all we can to find new ways of providing these fundamental services. Some challenges we face include improving cross-sector communication, fostering collaborative planning and creating incentives and regulatory flexibility that promote positive outcomes among utility decision makers.

Fortunately, there are people working on these problems. But in conversations we had with a number of national leaders from across the energy and water sectors, we learned that balkanization of utilities, utility regulations, and the commissions that oversee utilities are getting in the way of prudent use of our resources. It is clearly in society’s interest to manage our water and energy resources better, using them with long-term sustainability and resiliency in mind. But if institutions don’t have the right incentives, or have too many impediments, outcomes do not always align with larger community or long-term interests.

The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread believes in the wisdom that comes from bringing together innovative thinkers and practitioners from multiple sectors. For this edition of Inspiring Solutions, we’ve invited four of our partners to explore key areas of opportunity ‒ synergies, efficiencies and mutual benefits ‒ between the water and energy sectors and to identify steps that open the doors to better collaboration between the two. I invite you to read their contributions and reflect on their insight and perspective on what needs to happen, and where the most promising opportunities lie.

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