Seize the economic power of wastewater, experts say

GE Economic Power of Water
Keith Larsen
Speakers from Intel, Pacific Gas & Electric and GE gathered to discuss water reuse in their companies.

Water scarcity has become an economic issue, threatening industries as well as regions and ways of life. As such, corporate leaders are beginning to realize they need to get involved in finding solutions.

“We need to get the water industry to be known for its innovation rather than its conservatism,” said Water Smart Software CEO Robin Gilthorpe.

His words emerged as the consensus at the Economic Power of Water conference hosted by the Wharton School of Business and GE Power & Water last week in San Francisco. Corporate, government and non-profit leaders gathered there to discuss the world’s pressing water problem.

As the global demand for water is encroaching on its supply — the U.N. reports that 1.2 billion people live in an area of physical water scarcity — participants spoke about the need to improve efficiency in corporate water use, innovate around water reuse technology and enhance water education and outreach.

Gilthorpe, whose company integrates data analytics with customer water usage, said desire for innovation in the water sector has taken on a sense of urgency in California, suffering a drought of historic proportions. Talk of California's experience dominated the conference.

The event also provided a platform for GE Ecomagination to showcase its most recent white paper, “Addressing water scarcity through recycling and reuse: a menu for policymakers,” which highlights how policymakers should best implement water reuse and recycling based on the community needs.

Here are the dominant themes discussed at the conference:

Water reuse is not what you feared

The value of wastewater reuse as part of the solution was a major theme. The speakers mentioned that one major obstacle in getting governments to embrace water recycling and reuse is the public perception that recycled water is toilet water.

“There’s this misnomer that it goes straight from the toilet right into the tap. … Listen, there’s many sources of water that come out of your house and goes to the sewer,” said Michael Markus, general manager of the Orange County Water District.

According to Markus, only 10 percent of wastewater consists of water from toilets. The rest comes from a variety of sources including shower, washing machines and sinks.

The process is also obviously more intensive. Rather than simply being discharged, water from toilets, showers, washing machines and sinks goes to wastewater treatment plants where it goes through numerous treatments.

After the treatment plant, water intended for reuse goes through an advanced purification system, which includes micro filtration, reverse osmosis and advanced oxidation. Following all those steps, it then it goes into a groundwater basin where it is pumped into groundwater.  

Harness the power of — wastewater?

Beyond wastewater being reused and recycled to help combat water shortages, panelists at the conference also mentioned the energy in wastewater.

“There’s a huge opportunity to harness the energy that’s in these waste streams,” said Vincent Tidwell of the Sandia National Laboratories.

During a panel on innovation in the water ecosystem, Tidwell explained that by using bioreactors and fuel cells, it's possible to capture energy from wastewater streams.

If using this energy is possible, according to Tidwell, there's five to 10 times more chemical and thermal energy in wastewater than what is required to treat it.

“There are way more resources in wastewater than the water itself,” said Eileen O’Neill, executive director of the Water Environment Federation.

According to the EPA, electricity makes up 25 to 40 percent (PDF) percent of the operating budgets for wastewater utilities and nearly 80 percent of the budgets of drinking water processing and distribution plants.

Overall, drinking water and wastewater treatment plants account for 3 to 4 percent of total energy usage in the U.S.

In the panel, O’Neill stated that one concept being discussed at the Water Environment Federation is capturing the immense amounts of heat used in water treatment facilities and use them to heat municipal buildings.  

California's water scarcity

While water reuse can help us conserve water, will the world have enough usable water to meet demand? Multiple speakers, including keynote speaker Michael Connor, deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior, discussed the increasing importance of water.

According to the U.N., not only do 1.2 billion people live where water is scarce, but 1.6 billion people live in areas where infrastructure is not adequate to gather it from river and streams.

While the U.S. has significantly greater resources than many other countries of the world to invest in water technology and infrastructure, it is still beset with water problems. California is in the midst of a prolonged drought and only recently have mandates been made to regulate water consumption.

In California, snowfall was 5 percent of normal levels this year, the lowest amount recorded. According to the California Department of Water Resources, generally the state relies on snowfall to make up 30 percent of its water supply.  

"The media has got it wrong. We are not in three- to four-year drought. We are in a nine-year historic drought,” according to Deven Upadhyay, manager of the metropolitan water district of Southern California.