Last September, Cleantech Group organized a Water Innovation Summit in Berkeley, California, bringing together stakeholders across the water sector including utilities, investors, entrepreneurs, policy and thought leaders. Organized in a workshop-style format, this two-day event generated thought-provoking conversations on issues such as the utility perspective on innovation, smart water networks and sustainable water management in the oil and gas.
When it comes to water, most conversations are usually important and interesting. Still, we chose to focus on four key takeaways from the summit that we feel will have a growing importance in the near future:
1. Make sure water crises are not wasted – “Never waste a good crisis,” Rahm Emanuel once said, and it’s true not just for politics but also for water. The summit participants talked how innovation at a water utility is driven mainly by 3 C’s: Cost, Crisis, and Cool. They agreed that “while all three C’s are of significant importance to a utility, Crisis culled the most attention as growing populations force water providers to seek new sources of water.”
Water crises can be not just an enabler of innovation (Israel is a good example with its innovative drip irrigation techniques and desalination technologies), but also a game changer, helping change the opinions of policy makers and the public. For example, the New York Times reported how in 2009, while his city suffered from a the third year of a severe drought, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders changed his position on recycling wastewater after hearing from biotechnology industry executives that water shortages posed a threat to their businesses and might force them to move away from San Diego.
2. Water becomes the Achilles’ heel of fracking – The interrelationships between water and energy (aka the water-energy nexus) is becoming more of an interest for energy companies as energy is becoming a thirstier resource. As the International Energy Agency wrote in its 2012 World Energy Outlook, “water is growing in importance as a criterion for assessing the physical, economic and environmental viability of energy projects.”
One of the examples is hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which is a water-intensive extraction method and has accounted for a significant portion of the increased demand for water in recent years. This trend will only intensify as shale gas production is expected to reach about half of the total gas production in the U.S. by 2035.
The summit participants noted that oil and gas companies are now championing various water innovation opportunities as they realize that water can become their Achilles’ heel when it comes to fracking – if fracking competes for water with domestic use, its chances to overcome any sort of public debate are pretty low.
3. It’s agriculture, stupid! – While we tend to focus many times on the consumption of water for energy production or domestic use, we shouldn’t forget that agriculture is by far the top water user. According to UN Water, worldwide agriculture accounts for 70 percent of all water consumption, compared to 22 percent for industry and 8 percent for domestic use (although in developed countries the percentage of industry and domestic uses are higher).
It is not surprising, then, that among the summit participants there was a unanimous agreement that agriculture is “the most important sector in water management.” Following the first point here, it is also not surprising to find out that crises such as subsequent droughts in main farming areas are opening the door for innovative solutions, including water reuse, drip irrigation, and the onset of a water rights market.
Yet these solutions require investments which might become an obstacle as farmers, as Aric Olson, President of Jain Irrigation USA, noted, “can only pass on so much of their costs to customers.” Governments will have to support these investments, which given the vast use of water in agriculture can be the best bang for their buck.
4. Overcoming the “Yuck Factor”– Language matters, and therefore we’ll see growing efforts to replace water solutions terms that don’t give the public much appetite to adopt them, with more suitable ones. Take “recycled wastewater” – many people still refer to this concept as “toilet to tap.” This association was used by those opposing an initiative to recycle wastewater in San Diego in 1998 to win public support and take the initiative off the table at the city council.
The notion of treated sewage hooks into the intuitive concept of contagion and contamination, explains Carol Nemeroff, a psychologist at the University of Southern Main. To overcome this, a city must “unhook the current water from its history,” she adds. In Singapore, for example, where about 15 percent of its water originates from recycled wastewater, it is called “NEWater.” Sounds a bit more attractive, right?
And if we’re already getting into language matters, isn’t it time to get rid of the linkage between “waste” and “water?” “It is time to shift our focus away from the elimination of something undesirable to the opportunity to recover valuable resources such as water, energy, nutrients and beneficial products,” recommended Black & Veatch in their 2012 water utility report. This sentiment was also echoed in one of the summit’s recommendations – to change recycled water’s legal categorization as a “waste stream,” explaining that this does little (if anything) to boost its social image.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons the New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.