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The Q&A: Kate Zerrenner

In this week’s Q&A, we interview Kate Zerrenner, climate and energy senior manager at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Kate Zerrenner is climate and energy senior manager at the Environmental Defense Fund.

With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week’s subject.

Kate Zerrenner is climate and energy senior manager at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Trib+Water: Can you describe your role as climate and energy senior manager at the Environmental Defense Fund? 

Kate Zerrenner: I run EDF’s energy-water initiative and clean energy program. I started the energy-water initiative about five years ago when were in the middle of our drought at the end of the 2011 legislative session.

We had lost our Texas water team due to the recession a few years earlier, and then our drought hit. We didn’t have anyone at the Legislature to talk about water or EDF. I was on the energy team focusing on energy efficiency, but I felt it was imperative for us to be talking about water, and there was an easy tie-in with energy that wasn’t being discussed by the other environmental groups.

I don’t do traditional water advocacy; I only do water where it connects with energy. And I do our legislative and regulatory work as well as work with stakeholders in the community to help increase the knowledge about what the energy-water nexus is and how to address it.

Trib+Water: You’ve been working on a bill this session that follows up on a bill the Legislature passed in 2015. Can you expand on the work you’ve done at the Capitol this session? 

Zerrenner: Senate Bill 991 from 2015 required the General Land Office, in consultation with the Texas Water Development Board, to look for the potential of doing solar and wind desalination of brackish groundwater on state-owned land.

The Webber Energy Group at UT completed the study in March, which found nearly 200 potential sites that were cost effective and technically viable. The bill we’re working on this session would require the GLO to take that study and any other data they have available to create a plan — to implement pilot projects in one or more of those sites they found in the study. 

They don’t technically need legislation to do it, but we found in the past that when agencies have other things to do, things can get pushed further down the list if they don’t have some sort of directive from the Legislature. So this bill tries to circumvent that and says this is a priority — we’re looking at desalination as a water supply option for Texas in the future, but let’s make sure we think about it in an innovative way and that we not use water to make water, which is what we do when we use traditional energy resources.

Trib+Water: What does your work at EDF look like during the interim? 

Zerrenner: There’s a lot of education to the energy-water nexus, and once you explain it to people, they go, “Oh, that makes sense.” They know it, but it’s not at the forefront of their mind. I think education is a big component, and also working with policymakers — cities, regulators and the general public — as well as private stakeholders.

A lot of times, you’ll work with companies who are doing commercial efficiency upgrades but aren’t realizing they can get a lot of bang for their buck through water conservation, too. You can reduce your water consumption by reducing your energy consumption, and vice versa.

So I do a lot of education around the state and country, plus I do blogging. I’m active on Twitter and social media, trying to talk about what these issues are. You see a lot more movement at the city level, because that’s where the water utilities are. I work with them to provide resources to address the issues embedded in energy and water systems.

Trib+Water: What are the biggest things in the energy and water environments most people aren’t aware of? 

Zerrenner: I think just understanding how much energy is embedded into water and how much water is embedded into energy. One of the quotes we like to use is, “Running the hot water for five minutes uses as much energy as running a 60-watt light bulb for 14 hours.” People don’t think about the fact when they leave their lights on, they’re also using a lot of water, or when they’re running their air conditioning, they’re using a lot of water.

In a study we did, one of the things we found was the irrigation system is the most energy intensive of all technology appliances in homes in the summer in Texas. Irrigation systems are the most energy intensive and air conditioning is the most water intensive, but another surprising one is your clothes dryer. People don’t normally think about that, since it’s normally in a garage. A lot of people in Texas keep refrigerators or coolers in the garage, which is really hot in the summer, so it uses more energy to keep those things cool. 

You’re using a lot of water just by trying to keep things cool or dry your clothes in the summer. 

Trib+Water: Is there anything you’d like to add to today’s conversation?

Zerrenner: People are really connected to water in a way they’re not connected to electricity. Electricity is kind of a blind thing, but people have some sort of connection to it — you wash your hands in it, you bathe your kids in it. Texans are very connected to their waterways, and one of the ways we can preserve our water in a non-traditional way is by implementing more low-water clean energy. 

Water and energy are usually regulated in separate silos, so making that connection in peoples’ minds can maybe help break down some of those barriers. 

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