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World Water Day brings a gush of initiatives, investments

Facing the precarious state of water globally and in the U.S., businesses including GE and American Water step up with new R&D efforts. GE's plan converts wastewater treatment processes to electricity producers.

On the United Nations' World Water Day on Tuesday, no less than 150 companies and NGOs announced new initiatives towards enhancing water quality, conservation and management at a White House Water Summit.  

Water scarcity and quality issues have already been on the radar internationally, since 663 million people lack access to clean water. The World Economic Forum in 2015 named water scarcity the world's biggest risk.

But until this year, most  in the U.S. have taken water availability and quality for granted. News about children poisoned by lead from tap water in Flint, Michigan, and farmers abandoning crops in the drought-plagued West made the nation pay attention.

The contamination in Flint, attributed to pipe corrosion not prevented by a chemical many utilities add to water, led to the discovery that toxic water flows in other economically stressed cities.

Meanwhile drought in California, which produces half of the nation’s vegetables and fruits, made Big Ag as well as water utilities and Silicon Valley innovators sit up.

Facing such dire headlines, businesses and NGOs have invested more time and money into water recycling, desalination and irrigation technologies. Here are some of the big moves named this week.

GE and American Water

GE said it plans to invest $500 million into research and development during the next decade to expand capabilities in water reuse and wastewater technologies to solve the world’s biggest water challenges.

“Demand for fresh water now exceeds supply,” said Jon Freedman, Director of GE Global Partnerships & Policy, in an interview with GreenBiz.  “In Sao Paulo, Brazil, taps are literally running dry. California has been experiencing the worst drought in at least 500 years and China is now having a huge water pollution problem,” he said.

But the consensus at the White House Water Summit, he said, is that “We can change that reality,” through smarter water management, using data to tackle the infrastructure issue and innovating water reuse and recycling technologies.

“GE has been doing that by developing water reuse technologies and getting them deployed around the world,” he said. Its water treatment and reuse equipment division has some 1,000 water reuse installations that collectively treat more than 1 billion gallons a day.

GE’s work generally has focused on three layers of water treatment, starting with chemistry and filter pretreatment to membrane technologies for physical separation of materials including dissolved salt to, thirdly, ultra filtration membranes that take out bacteria and other microscopic.  This latter, its Membrane BioReactor, has been what Freedman called the building block for most of the water reuse projects it has installed around the world.

The new R&D effort, however, will be focused on a technology called Energy Neutral Wastewater Treatment — technology that not only cancels out the energy use in wastewater treatment but also potentially generates enough energy to return some to the electric grid.

Municipal wastewater treatment is currently a big energy user — consuming about 3 percent of the energy produced by US utilities.

In GE’s pilot project, the treatment process converts organic material in wastewater to methane. Then, the methane is burned in very efficient engines and converted to energy.

We believe there is enough energy in that process to not only run a wastewater plant but send some back to the grid.

“We believe there is enough energy in that process to not only run a wastewater plant but send some back to the grid,” Freedman said. "This is one of the keys to unlocking the energy-water nexus.” 

Breaking water treatment and distribution from its high dependence on electricity could benefit economies in many ways.

GE also is joining in an initiative with American Water, the largest water utility holding company in the U.S., to identify possibilities to develop Internet of Things-type solutions and products for the nation's water industry.

Flint's contamination shed light on the decrepitude of much of the nation's water infrastructure such as century-old lead water pipes in many cities in the Northeast and Midwest.  

Ernst & Young pointed out in a recent report that because water pipe infrastructure is hard to reach underground and because water is priced cheaply, utilities have neither been inclined nor able to invest much in upgrading piping. Most utilities don't recover enough money in water fees to pay for such infrastructure upgrades, and many are already burdened by debt.

But analyzing data from sensors can detect patterns in water flow within the pipes to  help utilities detect leaks without actually digging underground to get to the pipe, the report suggested. 

GE, American Water and others are pursuing such ideas.

"American Water is the largest investor owned water utility in the U.S. so it’s a great laboratory to try out new technologies particularly digital technologies on Predix,” Freedman said. Predix is GE’s cloud-based platform for Internet of Things technologies. The ideas is to build on the Predix platform something specific for the water utility industry around optimizing treatment and distribution of water and wastewater, he said.

The two companies hope to get at the economic challenge now presented in the aging U.S. water pipe infrastructure by developing products to optimize not only ways to identify which pipes are in clear need of replacement but also ways to optimize how an entire infrastructure system works together. Thus they plan to use data analytics and industrial IoT applications to improve the capability of water utilities to maintain infrastructure.

Meanwhile, in its own operations GE aims to continue to conserve water. Since starting its Ecoimagination strategy in 2006, GE has reduced freshwater use by 42 percent. Now it plans another 20 percent in reductions from 2011 levels. 

And the  GE Foundation will continue investing in the installation of water purification systems in community clinics in Honduras, Ghana, Uganda, Rwanda and Cambodia.

WaterSmart Software is offering data analytics software on a smaller scale, in applications sold to utilities to inform customers on water usage and potential leaks. The startup on Tuesday said it is adding eQuality software that lets  utilities communicate water quality information to customers.


Water quality reports are often highly technical, challenging to decipher and usually difficult to find on municipal websites.

Although the Environmental Protection Agency requires that water utilities and water districts publish information about their water quality, WaterSmart said "these reports are highly technical, challenging to decipher and usually difficult to find on municipal websites," and are required to be filed only once a year. WaterSmart's application, if utilities used it, would provide ongoing information on testing results, contaminants and so on.


In another R&D initiative, industrial giant Pentair said it will open two application centers to develop tools to help cities as well as industrial and commercial companies conserve water.

CEO Randall Hogan said the centers will focus on industrial water reuse in manufacturing and water stewardship in food and beverage processing.  In its own facilities in Conroe, Texas, Pentair engineered a closed-loop water system to cool production equipment.

Pentair said it will also work on water safety technologies — or ways to transport water in developing countries while keeping the water free of water-borne pathogens.

A Water Climate Bonds Standard

GE, Pentair and other companies announced their new plans in Washington, D.C. where they were gathered for a White House Water Summit. The federal government also announced initiatives, including public-private financing partnerships. 

One was a commitment of $4 billion of financing for innovations in water treatment, recycling, reuse and conservation. It also announced an new effort Building National Capabilities for Long-term Drought Resilience, hedging on a continuation of the severe drought in the West. And it announced $35 million in grant making programs to universities and organizations that conduct research on watersheds, protecting drinking water, the health impacts of water conservation strategies and the impacts to our water systems from extreme events.

Alongside the federal government initiatives, CDP announced it is introducing water security into its supply-chain program. It said it will aim to support U.S. businesses in reducing their water footprints and negative impacts to water supplies as well as enhancing water security across their supply chains. Through CDP’s supply-chain program, it expects that companies will use data from water suppliers to shift billions of corporate procurement spending to support sustainable water use.

A group of NGO including Ceres, the Climate Bonds Initiative, the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation, CDP and the World Resources Institute announced they are launching a Water Climate Bonds Standard to provide investors with verifiable, science-based criteria for evaluating water-related bonds.

The Water Climate Bonds Standard will assist issuers in the global corporate, municipal and sovereign markets to size up green-bond offerings. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission expects to be the first issuer to use the standard.

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