Water is one of the most visible signs of climate change, whether too much Where not enough. But until recently, it was seen primarily as a concern for adaptation and climate resilience. The fact is, however, that water can also play an important role in mitigating climate change. During the recent COP26 climate negotiations, water as a mitigation tool received more attention than in previous discussions. As the world seeks to find emission reductions wherever it can, the water sector has a wealth of technologies to help.
Water and climate change
The true impact of the global water system on climate change is often hidden because it stems from the energy needed to pump, treat and heat water. Moreover, in a vicious circle – given that the production of electricity from fossil fuels and nuclear energy also uses large quantities of water, if they are the main source of energy – the locality in question uses actually water to treat water.
Additionally, in the United States, water infrastructure becomes deformed with age and stress, leading to leaks that amount to the water (and energy) discharged – not to mention the loss revenue and increased operating costs for local utilities, as well as unnecessary carbon emissions.
The role of water and sanitation services
Water and sanitation utilities have long been aware of the problem, but many of these utilities, which are often municipally owned and/or operate on extremely thin budgets, have been unable to do much. Instead, they had to focus on fixing leaks (literally) rather than implementing innovative solutions. However, with more attention and support from the wider climate community, utilities are finding technologies and strategies available to engineer sustainability and resilience into their operations.
Discussions of climate mitigation, adaptation and resilience are now front and center like they weren’t a decade ago, said Jim Schlaman, director of planning and water resources for government operations. and environmental issues from Black & Veatch to TriplePundit. “It’s been interesting to hear the shift in tone towards more ESG (environmental, social and governance) goals and metrics.”
“There are discussions among many water utility leaders to get water utilities on board with net zero goals, for example,” he added. “Five years ago you rarely heard about it, but now utilities are talking about implementing strategies to reduce carbon emissions, plan and implement infrastructure in a more sustainable way, and embed resilience into everything. their practices. We are about to see utilities change the way they plan, implement and operate infrastructure and their businesses in a more sustainable and resilient way.
JC Alonzo, a member of the climate solutions team in Black & Veatch’s environmental services division, agrees. “Before, you had to hammer people just to listen to you on environmental issues,” he told us. “Water utilities are beginning to realize that their responsibility in running the business goes beyond moving water through the pipes.”
What utilities can do
Now that the conversation has shifted from if to how, companies such as Black & Calfskin – a global consultancy, engineering and construction company – is set to advise water and sewerage utilities and authorities on options.
One starting point is to ask water authorities to look beyond capital costs and plan for life cycle costs. “A more sustainable project doesn’t mean more expensive,” Schlaman said. “Typically, when people think this, it’s because they haven’t considered sustainability principles until the design is complete. However, if you incorporate sustainability thinking into your initial capital planning efforts and embed it into your standard operating procedures, you can find opportunities to complete higher value projects as they relate holistically to aspects environmental, social and financial. For example, a new project that Black & Veatch is developing with a Nevada client has deployed genetic algorithms and computer optimization during the planning phase to assess environmental and performance trade-offs, balance capital costs and life cycles, and improve overall system resiliency.
A key takeaway is that the water and wastewater utility landscape is vast, ranging from tiny municipal offices within a department to national corporations and everything in between. Larger ones often have good asset management programs, while smaller ones may struggle to employ someone who also has several other areas of responsibility. The good news is that innovation is stalling: when large utilities invest at scale in energy-saving technologies, it reduces costs for smaller ones. Information sharing is also essential.
Information sharing lays the foundation for energy-efficient water technologies
Recognizing that water and energy systems are integrated is equally important, and not always a priority, Schlaman said. “From a vulnerability perspective, our systems are more integrated than we thought, so we need coincident risk planning,” he told us. For example, the Texas town of Round Rock, just north of Austin, spent money on backup generators and preparedness planning more than a decade ago, and they were the only utility in the Austin metro area not to having to issue a boil water advisory during Winter Storm Uri in February 2021.
Utilities have often considered flood impacts, but are now thinking more about planning for coincident risks/vulnerabilities related to the power, transportation, cyber and supply chain systems that serve them, Schlaman added. . For example, the increased deployment of micro-grids is now gaining traction with water and wastewater utilities as a way to provide less reliance on a centralized grid, more flexibility in how they access electricity during disruptive events, greater financial flexibility to offset peak demand loads, and greater overall utility resilience.
Being off the main grid and investing in smaller scale reliability measures can end up being life saving in the event of an extreme weather event. Black & Veatch has also noticed an increase in the use of renewable energy by water utilities to generate their electricity, with solar being a popular option. Since many water services depend on reservoirs, technologies such as floating solar can both reduce evaporation rates and increase the efficiency of the panels themselves. Wastewater treatment plants, in particular, offer opportunities for biogas recovery during wastewater treatment, which can then be used to power plant operations or sold back to the grid.
Other technologies are emerging as demand for climate solutions grows. Hydropower in line and micro-turbines are passive energy systems that can operate pumping stations. Battery systems are also increasingly being used to provide backup power to pump stations so that they are no longer dependent on diesel generators. The city of Portland, Oregon, has used tube units since 2015, saving enough energy to power several hundred homes.
Alonzo sees a parallel with the consumer tech industry as tech continues to get smaller and cheaper, which is a good thing for resource-strapped utilities. And Schlaman added that the megatrend in the industry is a shift towards digitalization. Now that utilities are improving their data collection, they are better equipped for data optimization and smart hydro grid deployment.
Plan for the future
None of these technology deployments are possible without effective planning. Public services in cities such as Kansas City and Tampa — both on the front lines of climate change — are finding new ways to approach water planning, including clear delineation of roles and responsibilities and detailed scenario planning built into their master plans, Schlaman said.
“There is a big push towards dynamic master planning,” he said. “We are generating digital tools with cash flow models so utilities can perform adaptive capital planning and prioritization as needed. We can leverage modern computing power and genetic algorithms to test thousands of potential scenarios, assess multiple and uncertain futures, and develop strategies to improve utility resilience and reliability.
Another tool used more often in industry is the Imagine the infrastructure scoring system, a guidance tool that guides planners through the potential impacts of projects against the Triple Bottom Line, looking at environmental and social issues. And companies are starting to use Envision to guide and verify the sustainability of their projects, much like LEED does with buildings, Alonzo added.
Overall, having the water sector integrated as a full partner in climate change solutions means it is easier to share information and communicate, Schlaman concluded. “There is a lot of overlap with the [U.N. Sustainable Development Goals], comprehensive trainings on how to achieve the SDGs. It is comprehensive without being prescriptive, and many utilities are adopting these strategies to help plan and implement a more sustainable and resilient future. Different inextricably linked and historically siled industries now speak the same language, making solutions more effective and efficient – and closer than we thought.
This series of articles is sponsored by Black & Veatch and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.