Beyond Pumps and Turbines- Elaborating the Social Nexus

Retrieved from the CPUC

Beyond Pumps and Turbines- Elaborating the Social Nexus

by Miles Ten Brinke

Miles, Peak Water columnist and avowed Hydrophilic energy-head, has found his way to Britain where he’s lost his California perma-tan and is now a 1st year PhD candidate at the University of Manchester Business School  after studying an Energy Policy MSc at the University of Exeter in Cornwall.  He’s now trapped in the Nexus, researching the transition to sustainability of the global water-energy system.

The state of nexus studies today is one of healthy growth, in need of a new direction. Google water-energy nexus or do a search in an academic search engine and you’ll be inundated with results. The concept has been taken up by all kinds of different people, all around the world. Search Energy for Water or Water for Energy and you’ll get an even bigger haul. In the concept of impending climate change (and the need to prepare for adaptation around those new conditions) and rising resource scarcity concentrated in key regions around the world even policymakers are starting to take up the call. It’s part of the larger movement to think more cross-sectionally, to stop considering policy arenas like climate, environment, energy, water, food and land in isolation. There are material and synergistic interconnections all over the place, and elaborating those dynamics is an essential first step to understand what a nexus is and (hopefully) managing it sustainably. All this is promising, but when you dig a bit deeper the terms you can uncover what people are actually meaning in any discussion of a “water-energy nexus”.

There are some very progressive projects out there, but they are unfortunately limited in a very fundamental way. In some places, the powers that be actually do get it. They understand that seemingly disconnected issue areas like climate, water and energy need to be managed together. In California the cross-jurisdictional and multi-agency Climate Action Team has an entire work and research block devoted to the state water energy nexus. I won’t go into any depth yet about whether just being on the agenda has had any impact (but don’t worry it is one of the main things to evaluate about California) but there is a related metric: how the state water-energy nexus is being defined. A recent White Paper from the California Public Utilities Commission is exemplary at this:

The Water Energy Nexus (“Nexus”) is the interaction between water services and energy services where energy services rely on reliable access to water and water delivery services depend on access to energy. This co-dependency is referred to as the Water Energy Nexus.

A very good operational definition, clear delineation and with embedded epistemic/ontological/methodological assumptions you could tease apart throughout the rest of the paper in how its used. The only problem is, this is an extremely limiting definition. It is an exclusively instrumental, functional definition. The ideational, social and even wider environmental-ecological dimensions are completely obfuscated. Though I’ll wait to explicate this in depth for another column, this covers only one small part of the full empirical reality of a “water-energy nexus”, of the operational material flows. It covers only the input of water to produce and consume energy and the input of energy in the same delivery of services. There’s nothing about other flows of resources, especially the full commodity chain impacts on socio-technical systems and ecological cycles. There’s nothing there about the involved institutions or people, not even the major market players.

To get a bit of perspective I’d like here to direct any of you reading through this (here’s to hoping people actually do read the column) to an alternative understanding of what constitutes a nexus. This particular and status quo construction of nexus is all about the operational point of use impacts, links defined by the physical infrastructure involved- how much water is used in cooling systems for electricity generation or to produce biofuels, how much energy gets consumed pumping water from one place to another or to treat wastewater for reuse, etc. Think of this as the ‘Pumps and turbines’ view on water-energy nexuses, and if like me you reject that definition as partial and reductive go check out the work of Professor Christopher A. Scott at the University of Arizona Udall Center and especially his 2011 paper on the policy and institutional nexus dimensions. You’ll find a clear delineation of where the conventional approach breaks down, with an expanded view to include the systemic environmental impacts often and foolishly ignored as externalities and the essential consideration of social forces embedded within energy and water service delivery.

The funny thing is, the work being done by the CPUC, WETCAT and others in California illustrates exactly what Scott and his colleagues have begun to study. It’s a bit ironic that by setting out their definition and excluding the social side of a nexus the CPUC manifests it. To truly understand the water-energy nexus of California you need an empirical search for its socio-institutional system boundaries and trace through all the actors and institutions which determine those boundaries. When the CPUC employs its definition that creates a precise institutional logic its civil servants will follow, recursively reinterpreted and developed in application. But how can you expect to sustainably manage a nexus if you don’t understand the role that you and your organisation play in its development over time, let alone the full breadth of the relevant actors, organisations and institutions involved?

So next when you think of a water-energy nexus don’t forget the people and the environment that shape it. Don’t limit yourself to just Pumps and Turbines,

~Miles On Water

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