Blog Post

Have You Been Conflating Water with Energy? Here Are 5 Reasons to Stop

Until we stop talking about water as if it’s a clone of energy, water won’t get the respect it deserves or the attention it needs. Two sessions at NESEA’s BuildingEnergy ’15 conference, “Reinventing the Water Grid” parts one and two, are out to change that.

Policy wonks have been saying for years that water is THE critical resource on our planet—even more so than energy. Yet the time and attention that we devote to water remains a fraction of that we allot to energy.

I think that the problem is that we tend to talk about water conservation and efficiency as if water is just a clone of energy. Water and energy are similar in many ways, but there are key differences; until we appreciate these differences and embrace water on its own terms, we’ll continue to dis it.

Here are the five key differences that are confusing our approach:

1. Water is matter

Yes, at the subatomic scale energy and matter are more or less the same thing, but for us they are fundamentally different. Water is made of molecules; energy is something those molecules can gain and lose.

Why is this important? Just look to the first law of thermodynamics: conversation of energy and matter. On our little planet, we have a fixed amount of water that cycles through the biosphere and supports life. Energy, on the other hand, gets delivered to us daily in a constant, plentiful flow. Our biggest challenge right now is that the planet as a whole is capturing and holding onto too much of it!

2. We pay for water coming and going

Because we don’t actually consume most of the water that comes into our buildings, but instead contaminate it (with dirt, human waste, and heat) and then send it back out into the biosphere, we spend an inordinate amount of resources treating it, mostly so it doesn’t make people sick after it’s released.


BuildingGreen relies on our premium members, not on advertisers. Help make our work possible.

See membership options »

In some situations, we also pay attention to thermal pollution, especially heat from power plants when the rivers or lakes they are using as a heat sink get depleted by droughts.

3. Water is more seasonal than energy

In much of the world, precipitation patterns vary seasonally. Solar insolation also changes with the seasons, especially as you get closer to the poles, but that’s not where most of the world’s population lives.

4. Short-term storage of water isn’t hard

Storing water at the building or community scale for a week, a month, even a couple of months, isn’t that hard. Energy storage has made great leaps, but batteries are still limited and expensive, so storing enough for more than a day or two is a real challenge.

A week or a month is not enough time, however, to even out the seasonal fluctuations in rainfall, much less to deal with occasional cycles of drought. So onsite water storage is a great solution where rains can be expected year-round but not in the real challenging locations.

5. Extravagant use of water is more deeply entrenched in culture.

We’ve been using water to dilute and transport human waste for a few centuries in the western world—much longer in parts of the East. It’s hard for us to imagine not doing that. Energy, on the other hand, has only been cheap enough to waste for less than a century. We still have cultural patterns of relating to it differently, and we’re inventing new ways to use it, and to save it, all the time.

This more fluid relationship we have to energy may be the biggest reason for the relative ease with which we explore alternative solutions. When it comes to water, we’re stuck. That’s why the pioneers who are helping us rethink our relationship to water are such out-of-the-box thinkers. Come meet them at BuildingEnergy ’15.

Learn more

Not going to make it to BE15?

Published March 2, 2015

(2015, March 2). Have You Been Conflating Water with Energy? Here Are 5 Reasons to Stop. Retrieved from

Add new comment

To post a comment, you need to register for a BuildingGreen Basic membership (free) or login to your existing profile.