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Leapfrogging water infrastructure into the 21st century

New off-grid technologies such as ‘zero-source water’ and micro-desalination could help create sustainable water supplies for remote communities.

Source Hydropanels

An array of Hydropanels. Courtesy of Source

Between widespread drought, climate unpredictability and aging water supply infrastructure, water utilities face increasing pressure to keep up with current levels of water consumption.

However, the recently passed U.S. infrastructure bill, which has allocated $55 billion for water infrastructure — $35 billion of which will go toward incorporating the Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act — signals a much-needed shift in the field. While most of the money will go toward making upgrades to outdated water lines, many hope some of this stimulus will go toward innovation for a more resilient water future. 

During a recent panel at VERGE 21, water infrastructure experts weighed in on how new off-grid technologies such as zero-source water and micro-desalination could help create sustainable water supplies for remote communities and curtail water scarcity. Advancements in decentralized water systems reimagine the existing water infrastructure, much of which has failed to change over the past several decades, empowering even communities that have previously been underserved by water utilities to accelerate towards an environmentally conscious infrastructure of the 21st century. 

"The role of distributed new technologies is not only solving the water problem, but doing it in harmony with nature," said panelist Neil Grimmer, who serves as brand president of Source Global, a company that has developed technology to draw water from air. "We’ve taken a brute force approach through the Industrial Revolution and beyond to where we are today … We have to take a stance and say that it is no longer acceptable to have byproducts [of water] that are damaging the environment."

Shaping new matrices for accountability

Decentralized doesn’t need to mean informal. According to Austin Alexander, vice president of sustainability and social impact at Xylem, creating standardized metrics across the board for off-grid solutions is necessary for facilitating widespread use.

"The water sector is very good at measuring reduced contaminants or cost savings associated with different technologies, but what we need are both environmental and social metrics to accompany [this] new technology," she said. "How can we credibly provide metrics so that utility customers and ratepayers can hold technology providers like Xylem accountable?"

A system-level perspective

Expanding decentralized solutions and ensuring they will adequately meet the demands of a growing population requires some zooming out, said Sally Gutierrez, who performs research on off-grid water solutions for the U.S Environmental Protection Agency. "It is very important to have a sense of the overall system. Planning on a watershed level is not really where we are right now," she said. "That’s where science and research can be valuable tools that will let us do better system-wide evaluations."

It’s an exciting time to be in water because I think we’re … really taking in the community’s inputs and thinking about things through the lens of water equity and environmental justice.

For Gutierrez being able to view decentralized solutions as a holistic system is essential to contextualizing these initiatives’ actual net impact on the environment. "How can you take centralized system data and couple that with these decentralized approaches? How do we look at [this relationship], characterize it and analyze it for problems? I think we need better tools there to understand the environmental flows," she said.

Scaling off-grid technologies

According to Grimmer, technological innovations and off-grid products seeking to disrupt existing water infrastructure not only hold the capacity to scale up but are necessary for creating equitable infrastructures for areas and communities that existing water infrastructures have failed to serve. 

Hydropanel, a technology developed by Source, uses solar energy to power an atmospheric water capture system, otherwise known as zero-source water, that traps and processes water vapor, harvesting clean, drinking water from the air. Grimmer argues that the power in decentralized approaches such as Hydropanel, lies in the ability to "infinitely scale up or down" according to customer requirements. "We can gang these all together and put thousands of Hydropanels in an array we call a water farm and produce tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of gallons a year… We can also bring it right down to two or four panels, like we did in a home in the Navajo Nation [that] we just completed," he said.

The flexibility of scale that technologies such as Hydropanels offer skirt water scarcity and groundwater contamination to provide cost-effective and time-sensitive solutions for under-connected and underserved locations such as the Navajo Nation, where Hydropanels have been installed in over 500 households.

Creating community-specific solutions

Atmospheric water generation is just one of many technologies at the forefront of developing a decentralized water infrastructure. Presented alongside a plethora of other options, the panelists emphasized community-centered decision-making in incorporating decentralized and off-grid solutions.

"The only way to [create metrics of success and accountability for each individual community] is by involving the local community in decision-making," said Alexander. "It’s an exciting time to be in water because I think we’re … really taking in the community’s inputs and thinking about things through the lens of water equity and environmental justice. It’s created filters that impact what we’re designing and providing in terms of technology to communities."

Part of this is also creating technologies that can be fine-tuned to accommodate the local cultural attitudes and ecologies. Grimmer added that human-centered design can only get so far without community participation, noting that resilient solutions extend far beyond just technology.

"It’s a fundamentally human conversation, a human bridge, we need," he said. "Technology plays an important role, but it is not the solution. How do we work with these communities to integrate technologies in a seamless way that they can actually appreciate and accept over time?"

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