What do an 80-year-old retiree and an Olympic athlete have in common? Neither carries their own water to a 15th-floor high rise condo

The average Toronto resident uses around 253 liters of water a day, according to the City of Toronto. Most residents of the city have no idea how much energy it takes to get that water into their homes. Those 253 liters of water weigh over 253 kilograms (over 556 pounds, for those who deal with Imperial measurements). That’s more than a quarter of a metric ton. Try lugging a quarter of a metric ton of water by hand every day. You will quickly realize how important electric-powered pumps are. If you had to lug 253 kilograms of water every day, you would have little time for anything else. This is why people who don’t have electricity are poor. People need water to live and carry on a normal life in reasonable cleanliness. Moving and working with water by hand is hard labour. That is what Hans Rosling tries to point out in this brilliant TED talk:

Imagine you live on the 15th floor of a high rise. You are above the level—usually the 12th floor—where the pressure in the municipal water system can push water up to your unit. Above that level, electric booster pumps push the water up. So each and every day, electricity is bringing huge amounts of water to each and every Toronto resident who lives above the 15th floor in a high rise. Without those booster pumps, those residents would have to carry the water up the stairs by hand.

[Update: I was informed, during a very interesting visit to the RC Harris water treatment plant on Queen St. E. in Toronto in May 2013 that all of Toronto’s water is moved with electric pumps. The 12 floor pressure limit applies to Ottawa, where I live: we use water power to pump much of the water through our system.]

If you think this is a trivial matter, then try this. I encourage every reader to fill a pail with water; a standard pail holds around 10 liters. Then carry the pail of water up about fourteen stairs; that is about one standard storey, or one standard flight of stairs. I urge you: give it a try.

Now that you’ve done it, how do you feel? Remember that feeling, then try lugging the same pail of water up two flights of stairs. Then try three. Or if you are really feeling energetic, try four. How do you feel? A bit tired, and perhaps out of breath? Or completely wiped out?

Well, consider that that one pail of water—10 kilograms of water—represents about one-twenty-fifth of the amount of water you consume each and every day. Your normal household activities—cleaning up the kitchen, using the bathroom, having a shower, watering the plants, and making a cup of tea or coffee or hot chocolate—require a huge amount of energy.

If you had to supply that energy yourself, with your own muscle, you would spend most of your day doing extremely hard manual labour. If you had dreams of improving your lot, say by going to school and studying for a degree or certificate, those dreams would be quickly subordinated to the cruel reality that water weighs one kilogram per liter and that it takes just over one watt-hour of heat to increase the temperature of 1 kilogram—roughly a liter—of liquid water by one degree Celsius. (It takes considerably more than 1 watt-hour to melt the same amount of water.)

You cannot possibly do that work yourself. You need an external source of energy, or you simply have to give up modern life and revert back to the Stone Age lifestyle, when life was nasty, brutish, and short.

Going back to my challenge to hand-lug one pail of water up one, then two, then three, then four flights of stairs: remember how tired you were. Don’t feel bad or lament your state of physical fitness. An Olympic athlete would find it challenging. If he or she had to lug a quarter of a metric ton of water every day, he or she would have no time left to train for any event but water-pail-lugging, which I don’t think is even an Olympic event.

Now imagine an eighty-year old person. How much less able is he or she to move a quarter of a metric ton of water each and every day?

The moral of this story: we need a lot of energy just to live a normal life. Without lots of energy, especially in the form of electricity, Toronto high rises would be literally uninhabitable.

The latest round in the Ontario energy wars is being fought right now, in Courtice Ontario, where there is a hearing to discuss the environmental assessment for the Darlington Nuclear Refurbishment project. As I mentioned a while back, Darlington is of enormous importance to Toronto: the station could power the entire city 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. That is to say, Darlington can, on its own, provide enough energy to bring a quarter of a ton of water to every one of Toronto’s 2,480,000 residents each and every day of the year, and also to heat and purify that water.

There are other ways to generate Darlington’s electricity, of course. But those other ways are very, very few: two in fact. They are coal and natural gas. Natural gas, allegedly the “cleaner” of these two fossil fuels, dumps half a kilogram of carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal greenhouse gas, into our air every time it generates a kilowatt-hour of electricity.

There are people right now at the Darlington hearing who are trying to convince Ontarians that it is better to use carbon-heavy gas to power Toronto. They are trying to make their case by pretending that wind and solar energy, which are intermittent and unreliable, are capable of bringing the quarter-ton of water to every Toronto resident every day. Don’t believe them. They don’t believe it themselves. None of them would get into a high rise elevator if they knew it was powered only with wind and solar.

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10 years ago

That helps put things in perspective. I like the Ted Talk at one point after going on about how great the washing machine was for women he explains that he often asks his classes full of environmentalists “How many of you doesn’t use a car? And some of them proudly raise their hand. And then I put the really tough question. How many of you hand wash your jeans and your bed sheets and no one raised their hand. Even the hard core in the green movement use washing machines.”

10 years ago

That’s a great TED talk.

In general people are unaware of the amount of energy they use.

To make matters worse, they’re unaware of the different sources of electricity and their limitations (and costs).

With this lack of information, people can become inflicted with “renewable-itis”. The only cure is to take a physics pill.

This can be done in school form. But learning about energy by reading up on it can work too. A great starting place is to learn about the units of energy and work (calories and so forth).


James Greenidge
10 years ago

This super article is a prime nugget for a nuclear education PSA! Should we pass a hat to do it since the nuclear industry and nuclear professional organizations aren’t going to drop a dime to do such outside of slapping themselves on the backs with nuclear convention awards? Like I say, fire all nuclear PR offices — totally clean house — and start afresh with gung-ho creative crews!

James Greenidge
Queens NY

10 years ago

“You need an external source of energy”

So you propose using a base load power supply to provide energy into a storable product? That seems… dumb.

As I write this there’s about six months of Canada’s total electrical power use sitting backed up behind the dams in northern Quebec, and some similarly large fraction in Lake Winnipeg.

“But those other ways are very, very few: two in fact. They are coal and natural gas”

Ahh, the fallacy of the excluded middle… again. Steve continues to promote this false dichotomy in spite of being repeatedly presented ample counter evidence.

In Ontario there are 20 GW of undeveloped hydro(1), 7 GW in PV on empty commercial rooftops(2), about 50 GW of wind of which we have about 10 GW developed(3). If you add that up and multiply by the capacity factor, that’s more than all the power we use. So no, coal and gas are not the only power systems available.

At this point Steve traditionally replies with an argument about capacity factors and dispatch… again.

However, as has also been pointed out, the current build-out of gas plants is actually to fix the dispatch problem with nuclear, not renewables. Peak load is a little under 2x base load, which the nukes have no ability to address.

This claim also includes the inherent political boundary-drawing issue unique to Canada – there’s already enough power developed in Quebec and Manitoba to feed all our supply, available for the taking by building a wire.(4) That wire would be HVDC, a Canadian invention no less(5). In case you’re wondering, a 768kWdc line would burn about 5% of the power when run all the way from James Bay.(6)

The fact that energy is still in the hands of the provincial governments and not the private sector is the only reason this problem even exists in the first place. Ontario’s grandiose plans to become a major worldwide player in nuclear allowed it to gather about $10 billion in funds(7) from the rest of the country to dump into AECL and then buy it ourselves as the lead customer. And people complain about FIT?

Now that that particular financial black hole is being disassembled, I’m all ears on how one makes the financial argument for fission in Ontario these days. We have our choice of giving those $30 billion to the French or US, because we can’t possibly think about giving only a tiny fraction of that to Quebec, our fellow countrymen?

Vive la différence!

1) http://www.owa.ca/assets/files/links/Waterpower_Potential_Nov2005.pdf
2) http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0198971510000025
3) http://www.uwig.org/OPA-Report-200610-1.pdf
4) http://www.siemens.com/press/pool/de/events/2011/energy/2011-09-mallorca/factsheet-hvdc-e.pdf – losses for
5) http://www.ieeeghn.org/wiki/index.php/Milestones:Nelson_River_HVDC_Transmission_System,_1972
6) http://www.energy.siemens.com/hq/en/power-transmission/hvdc/hvdc-ultra/#content=Benefits
7) http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/media-room/news-release/2011/57b2/1593