The need to expand reliable, affordable access to clean water has been thrown into sharp focus by the novel coronavirus pandemic. Accelerated action is more urgent than ever. The question is how.
One key to the answer may be found in the global transition to renewable energy. Just 10 years ago, wind turbines and solar panels were perceived as pricey, trendy gimmicks for the well-to-do. Much has changed since then.
Renewable energy has emerged as a powerful tool for strengthening the resiliency and reliability of electricity grids, improving energy access across all income groups, remediating economic and environmental injustice, creating new jobs, and attracting top innovators.
The move toward more sustainable forms of energy is taking place on both a massive, centralized scale and on a smaller-scale, decentralized basis. To follow a similar trajectory, stakeholders in water technology and treatment could consider scaling out as well as scaling up.
Where large-scale, centralized water treatment is concerned, one important advance over the past 25 years is the emergence of nanoscale filtration technology, a relatively new process by which water is filtered through a membrane to remove solids and contaminants. Nanoscale filtration can be used to purify drinking water, to make wastewater potable, and even to desalinate seawater or brackish water for use as a drinking source. Three scientists at DuPont Water Solutions were recently recognized by the American Chemistry Society for their contributions in this area.
A key challenge now is to reach rural areas and far-flung populations, where building major new water infrastructure can be prohibitively expensive. Here, the renewable energy sector provides a model for growth through its emphasis on locally-sourced energy that serves local needs.
In the water technology field, the portable LifeStraw filter demonstrates that it is possible to shrink effective treatment systems down to pocket-sized scale. However, cost and supply chain issues indicate that personal water filters are not a long-term global solution. To scale out, water solutions need to be simple, accessible and affordable for whole communities.
One promising avenue of interest is in the area of a microbial systems, such as this simple sand filtration system developed by Purdue University for use in rural developing communities. In another example of the microbial approach, researchers at the University of Bath in the U.K. are working to fine-tune a simple technology based on sunlight and plastic bottles to create portable, affordable filtration systems capable of producing enough clean drinking water for an entire household.
Capturing water from uncommon sources is another pathway, as represented by fog-catching systems: Virginia Tech, for example, has been exploring new fog-catching technology under the poetic moniker “fog harp,” piquing interest from stakeholders in Bangladesh, Mexico and South Africa.
Another aspect of the renewable energy revolution is its emphasis on jobs and economic development. Signs are already emerging that the renewable energy trend will accelerate on the heels of the COVID-19 crisis, as both public policymakers and private-sector stakeholders focus on building a more sustainable future.
Water technology advocates could take a page from the renewable energy playbook by identifying groups — military veterans, for example — that can adapt other life skills to various occupations in water resources. Over the long run, a focus on workforce development pays off in public policy as workers become advocates, activists, ambassadors and voters.
As the Brookings Institute concluded in a 2018 study of the U.S. water utilities sector: “The country’s water infrastructure is strategically positioned to support more inclusive economic development.”
In the U.S. in particular, another key driver of renewables is the nation’s focus on research and development through the U.S. Department of Energy. The departments of Defense and Agriculture have also contributed substantially to the efforts to scale up clean power.
A pivotal point occurred in 2011, when former President Barack Obama established the “Sunshot” program, modeled on the famous Moonshot program that sent the first man into outer space. In addition to attracting top innovators in solar and wind technology, the effort has engaged information technology experts and startups in developing new applications that help lower the cost of renewable energy and improve access.
A similar nationally coordinated effort on behalf of water technology could help raise the profile of water innovators and attract additional talent into the field. The Israeli government’s long-term water technology investments, for example, effectively created a $2 billion water business made up of hundreds of companies. In the United Arab Emirates, a massive new desalination project, partially funded by government agencies, will be able to produce up to 180 million gallons of fresh water per day when it comes online in 2022, helping the country cope with existing water stress and safeguard against future scarcity.
Renewable energy itself can also help scale up next-generation water technologies by cutting costs and improving efficiency, as a key issue with securing, transporting and storing water over the years has been its impact on energy usage.
One large U.S. water utility discloses that 90 percent of its electricity consumption and 80 percent of its carbon emissions come from the electricity it uses to run its operations. For municipalities, drinking water and wastewater plants can account for as much as 40 percent of their total energy consumption, and these water systems nationwide generate 2 percent of energy use within the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Bringing innovators from both sectors together can mitigate energy impacts while delivering clean water cheaply and efficiently.
From an investor interest perspective, wind turbines and solar panels have an advantage because they are visible. Much of the world’s water technology infrastructure, in contrast, is located underground or hidden behind the walls of nondescript buildings, and most people simply don’t know much about it or how it works.
The World Wildlife Fund's work in connecting water access with habitat preservation offers one potential solution. These efforts, such as the installation of constructed wetlands and the establishment of watershed-wide partnerships around conservation, come with an added bonus of providing a visual handle for investors focused on environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors, said Evan Freund, senior director for infrastructure and large initiatives on the WWF’s U.S. freshwater team.
"When we have engaged with some of the big asset owners and investors, they recognize the pressure they’re getting,” Freund told TriplePundit. “The big pension funds are increasingly ESG-oriented, and there is clearly a recognition that bankable, sustainable projects have to be at the forefront in their portfolios.”
Under the umbrella of green infrastructure, habitat conservation can involve whole-of-community benefits in terms of cutting costs, creating jobs, attracting innovators, improving public health, and providing a buffer against extreme weather events.
In Freund’s experience, there is plenty of room for growth in the green infrastructure field. The overarching challenge, though, is one of policy.
As tragically illustrated by the experience of Flint, Michigan, public ownership of water infrastructure is no protection against bad management. “What’s fundamentally important is the governance about the delivery of public services,” Freund explained. “Nothing is more important than water supply.”
For advanced water technologies to follow a similar path to renewable energies and reach communities in need, all of these aspects — workforce, innovation, ESG investment and policy — must work together. The technologies are there. We just need the collective commitment to make it happen.
This article series is sponsored by DuPont Water Solutions and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.