Repositioning the Water Industry for the Water-Energy Nexus

For over a century, the clean and drinking water industry in the United States has viewed itself as the stalwarts of preserving, cleaning, transporting and distributing water to the world.

By Zain Mahmood

For over a century, the clean and drinking water industry in the United States has viewed itself as the stalwarts of preserving, cleaning, transporting and distributing water to the world. This mission has served us well as we look back at how we have successfully created new means of meeting environmental regulations and delivering one of the lowest costs to clean/re-use water in the world; the industry has met its greater commitment while successfully delivering on the goals of our shareholders/owners and growing at a healthy pace over the last 50 years.

During the last decade, it has become abundantly clear that thinking about water as an isolated space is neither practical nor desirable. The water and energy spaces are inextricably linked, thereby creating the need for us to start thinking about our industry (and individual companies) from a different dimension.

More than 3 percent of the US national grid for energy is dedicated to treating water. The California Energy Commission (CEC) estimates that almost 20 percent of California’s electricity demand and 30 percent of California’s natural gas demand are associated with water use. Conversely, 39% of the freshwater withdrawal in the US is used for cooling-water in thermo-electric plants (EPRI).

According to the Brookhaven National Laboratory, the typical US household expends ~100 gallons/person/day of water for household use; however, requires 465 gallons of water for energy production and 510 gallons for food consumed (irrigation/livestock).

Sandia National Laboratory, on its website succinctly states:

“The continued security and economic health of the United States depends on a sustainable supply of both energy and water. These two critical resources are inextricably and reciprocally linked; the production of energy requires large volumes of water while the treatment and distribution of water is equally dependent upon readily available, low-cost energy. The nation’s ability to continue providing both clean, affordable energy and water is being seriously challenged by a number of emerging issues.”

When we design a system or process for a city, industry or a rural municipality, how many of our engineers take into account the long term energy needs of that entity? Are we considering the ramifications of alternative energy sources that may help us treat water and wastewater more effectively and efficiently?

A common example that comes to mind is the enormous quantity of sludge that industrial and municipal wastewater plants (in the US) are putting in landfills; even though we know the energy and nutrient co-efficient of this waste product. There are innovative technologies that allow for the treatment of sludge to convert it into energy pellets or fertilizer. Instead of discharging the harmful methane gas into the environment, we can also capture and use it as an energy source for our water/wastewater plants. It is telling when we learn that Japan and Sweden put 80% of their sludge to beneficial use while in the US, 80% is land-applied.

The new administration in Washington is urging us to think about a “green economy” and for the first time, providing incentives and dollars to nudge our thinking. As corporate leaders, we must also challenge our own product divisions to replace “energy hog” products with greener options. We must encourage our companies to increase the percentage of our R&D dollars being spent on significantly improving the energy efficiency of our products and systems. As users or engineers of equipment and systems, we must look for the most energy efficient options, every day.

Organizations like WWEMA and AWWA play a critical role in helping the industry re-position itself as both empathetic, yet creative champions for change as this water-energy nexus gets tighter. The charters of these organizations need to amplify the goal to improve energy efficiency of all products we design, produce or distribute to create a more balanced and sustainable future for our companies and the industry as a whole.

When you listen to Johnny Nash singing, “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone.... It’s gonna be a bright, bright sun-shiny day”, you see that even in our cultural imagery, rain (water) and sun (energy) are tied, side by side.

As a symbol of the water-energy nexus, what we need is that elegant rainbow that covers our industry’s landscape providing a beautiful outcome, both rain and shine can co-exist in mutual interdependence.

We have to lead now in building that rainbow. WW

About the Author:
Zain Mahmood is President and Chief Executive Officer of Parkson Corporation, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida based solution provider of advanced water. wastewater treatment and biosolids technologies. He is currently serving as a board member on the WWEMA board. Circle No. 262 on Reader Service Card

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