Fountains from an environmental point of view

fontaine ecologie consommation energetique

The environmental crisis that has beset our generation is forcing people to rethink urbanism and our overall relationship with the biosphere. In this perspective, the place of water in society and our management of this resource become essential questions.

When water isn’t used in a closed circuit, there are various techinical possibilities to create effects without any external energy source, as was the case with the fountains and wash basins of yesteryear. The presence of a source such as a river or a resevoir upstream from the fountain installation allows for the creation of water effects that are more complex than the simple flow of traditional fountains. However, this type of installation does require a certain configuration of the landscape and a certain availability of natural water. (See the Jardin du Las and Parc des Estourants projects.)

In other cases, modern fountains use a closed circuit system to economise water and create more spectacular effects. A medium-sized dynamic fountain (jets, waterfalls, etc.) for a public area requires between 20 and 50 kilowatts of energy. While these figures might seem high when compared to domestic energy usage, on the scale of a town or city the energy consumption is actually quite modest.

It also helps to put a fountain’s energy consumption into context. Take, for example, an average car that requires approximately 7 litres of fuel to travel 100 km. Considering that one litre of fuel contains roughly 10 kilowatt hours of energy, a car uses 70 kilowatt hours of energy to travel 100 km.  To calculate the equivalent of the car’s energy usage in electricity depends on the exact energy production method, but the result is an order of magnitude larger than what a fountain consumes.* Thus, all you need to do is take one car out of circulation and you can neutralize the energy consumption of a fountain!**

The essential question in terms of the environment is thus not the energy consumation of a fountain, but rather the urban infrastructure. Prioritising public transportation and other less environmentally demanding means of moving around a city results in far superior energy savings than anything that can be achieved through debates about whether or not fountains should be funded. When factors such as the quality of life and urban tranquility provided by a fountain are also considered, the issue is cast in an entirely different light. It must also be remembered that the opening of a public space for a fountain or a green space is also the occasion to reconsider traffic patterns and address congestion problems. Alternative means of transportation that reduce the presence of cars are ways to beautify the city and render a city more human. Improvements to the fabric of urban life also inspire residents to live within a city rather than flee its confines in search of space and refreshment. If water is used in the appropriate manner, its physical properties, its sensuality, and its symbolic power are perfectly at home within a contemporary city seeking to an answer to today’s environmental challenges.

— Pierre Luu

* It is an order of magnitude because the exact calculation requires the comparaison of specific fountain types to specific car models (that, it should be remembered, consume even more fuel when driving in a city). The return rate for energy production varies from 30% (thermal power) to 80% (hydro-electric dams). To produce between the 20 and 50 kilowatt-hours needed to run a fountain, between 25 and 167 kilowatt-hours of primary energy would be required, depending on the source.  How many fountains could be operated with the energy produced by one wind turbine? A medium sized wind turbine has a nominal power output of 1 megawatt so in a year it can be considered to generate roughly 250 kilowatts. If we put aside the issue of wind intermittence, which is another debate, we can say that between 5 and 10 fountains can be powered by a medium sized wind turbine.

** To be more precise, one would also have to calculate the grey energy used to construct an fountain compared to the grey energy required by cars (construction and infrastructure).

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