A floating solar array on a retention pond at the local water treatment facility in Walden, Colorado. (Image courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory)
Water is one of the most visible signs of climate change, whether it is too much or not enough. But until recently, it mostly was seen as primarily a climate adaptation and resilience concern. The fact is, however, that water also can play a powerful role in climate mitigation. During the recent COP26 climate negotiations, water as a mitigation tool received more attention than it had at previous talks. As the world looks to find emissions reductions wherever it can, the water sector has a host of technologies to help.
The global water system’s true impact on climate change often is hidden from view because it comes from the energy needed to pump, treat and heat water. Further, in a vicious cycle — given that fossil fuel- and nuclear-powered electricity generation also use copious amounts of water, if they are the main source of energy — the locality in question is effectively using water to treat water.
Further, in the U.S. water infrastructure is buckling with age and stress, leading to leaks that amount to water (and energy) flushed away — not to mention the loss of revenue and increased operational costs for local utilities, as well as unnecessary carbon emissions.
Water and wastewater utilities have been aware of the problem for a long time, but many of these utilities, which often are municipally owned and/or operating on razor-thin budgets, have been unable to do much about it. Instead, they have had to focus on plugging leaks (literally) rather than instituting innovative solutions. With more attention and support from the larger climate community, however, utilities are finding available technologies and strategies to design sustainability and resilience into their operations.
Discussions around climate mitigation, adaptation and resilience are now at the forefront in a way they were not a decade ago, Jim Schlaman, Director of Planning and Water Resources for Black & Veatch’s Government and Environmental business, told TriplePundit. “It has been interesting to hear the change in tone toward more ESG (environmental, social and governance) goals and metrics.”
“There’s discussion among many water utility leaders to have water utilities sign up for net zero goals, for example,” he added. “Five years ago, you'd rarely hear it mentioned, but now, utilities are talking about implementing strategies to reduce carbon emissions, plan and implement infrastructure more sustainably, and drive resilience into all of their practices. We’re on the precipice of seeing utilities change how they plan, implement, and operate infrastructure and their enterprises in more sustainable and resilient ways.”
JC Alonzo, a member of the climate solutions team within Black & Veatch’s environmental services division, agreed. “You used to have to hammer on people just to get them to listen to you about environmental issues,” he told us. “Water utilities are starting to understand that their responsibility for operating the business goes beyond moving water through the pipes.”
Now that the conversation has shifted from if to how, companies such as Black & Veatch — a global consulting, engineering and construction firm — find themselves poised to advise water and wastewater utilities and authorities about the options.
One of the places to start is by having water authorities look beyond capital costs and plan for lifecycle costs. “A more sustainable project doesn’t mean more costly,” Schlaman said. “Typically, when people think that, it’s because they didn’t consider sustainable principles until the end of design. However, if you build sustainable thinking into your upfront capital planning efforts and incorporate it as part of your standard operating procedures, you can find opportunities to deliver higher value projects as they relate holistically to environmental, social, and financial aspects.” For example, a new project that Black & Veatch is developing with a client in Nevada deployed genetic algorithms and computer optimization during the planning stage to evaluate environmental and performance trade-offs, find good balance between capital and lifecycles costs, and improve the overall resilience of the system.
A key component to remember is that the landscape of water and wastewater utilities is vast, ranging from tiny municipal offices within a department to national corporations and everything in between. The larger ones often have good asset management programs, while the smaller ones may struggle to employ a person who also has several other areas of responsibility. The good news is that innovation runs downhill: When larger utilities invest in energy-saving water technologies at scale, it lowers the cost for the smaller ones. Information sharing also is critical.
Recognizing that water and energy systems are integrated is equally important, and not always top of mind, Schlaman said. “From a vulnerability perspective, our systems are more integrated than we thought they were, so we need coincident risk planning,” he told us. For example, the Texas city of Round Rock, just north of Austin, spent money on backup generators and preparedness planning more than a decade ago, and they were the only utility in the Austin metropolitan area that did not have to issue a boil notice during Winter Storm Uri in February 2021.
Utilities often have historically considered flooding impacts but are now thinking more about coincident risk/vulnerability planning related to the power, transportation, cyber, and supply chain systems that serve them, Schlaman added. For example, the increased deployment of microgrids is now gaining ground with water and wastewater utilities as a way to provide less dependence on a centralized grid, more flexibility in how they access power during disruptive events, greater financial flexibility to offset peak demand charges, and greater overall utility resilience .
Being off the main grid and investing in reliability measures on a smaller scale can end up being a lifesaver in an extreme weather event. Black & Veatch also has noticed an uptick in the use of renewable energy by water utilities to generate their power, with solar being a popular option. Since many water utilities rely on reservoirs, technologies such as floating solar can both lower evaporation rates and increase the efficiency of the panels themselves. Wastewater plants in particular offer opportunities for biogas recovery during wastewater treatment, which then can be used to power the plant’s operations or sold back to the grid.
Other technologies are emerging as demand increases for climate solutions. In-pipe hydropower and micro-turbines are passive energy systems that can run pump stations. Battery systems also increasingly are used to provide backup energy for pump stations so they no longer have to rely on diesel generators. The city of Portland, Oregon, has used in-pipe units since 2015, saving enough energy to power several hundred homes.
Alonzo sees a parallel with the consumer tech industry as technologies continue to get smaller and less expensive, which is a good thing for resource-strapped utilities. And Schlaman added that the megatrend in the industry is a shift toward digitization. Now that utilities are improving their data collection, they are better equipped for data optimization and the deployment of water smart grids.
None of this technology deployment is possible without effective planning. Utilities in cities such as Kansas City and Tampa — both on the front lines of climate change — are figuring out new ways to approach water planning, including clear delineation of roles and responsibilities and extensive scenario planning built into their master plans, Schlaman said.
“There’s a big push toward dynamic master planning,” he said. “We generate digital tools with cash-flow models so utilities can perform adaptive capital planning and prioritization as needed. We can leverage modern computing power and genetic algorithms to test thousands of potential scenarios, evaluate multiple and uncertain futures, and develop strategies to improve the utility’s resilience and reliability.”
Another tool being used more often in the industry is the Envision Infrastructure rating system, a guidance tool that takes planners through potential impacts of projects relative to the triple bottom line, looking at environmental and social issues. And companies are starting to use Envision to guide and verify the sustainability of their projects, much like LEED does with buildings, Alonzo added.
All in all, the fact that the water sector is being brought in as an integral partner in climate change solutions means it is easier to share information and communication, Schlaman concluded. “There is a lot of overlap with the [U.N. Sustainable Development Goals], entire training courses on how to achieve SDGs. It’s comprehensive without being prescriptive, and a lot of utilities are adopting these strategies to help plan and implement a more sustainable and resilient future.” Different sectors that are inextricably linked and historically siloed now are speaking the same language, making solutions more effective and efficient — and closer in reach than we may have thought.
This article series is sponsored by Black & Veatch and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.