The water industry at the heart of energy transition

Posted on 12 March 2019.

The water sector has an important role to play in energy transition. Veolia UK has released a report on six key issues that will transform the sector.

The UK’s water industry is the country’s fourth most energy-intensive sector.

On October 8, 2018, experts from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) once again sounded the alarm. In a new report, they stressed the urgency of reducing our CO2 emissions to halt the effects of climate change. In particular this means changing our production and energy consumption patterns. This is the principle behind the concept of  energy transition.

This is a transition in which the water industry has an important role to play. It is a little known fact but the water industry is one of the most energy-intensive sectors in the world. In the UK, for example, it’s in fourth place: it consumes 3% of the electricity the country produces (for pumping, water treatment and waste management), and generates 1% of the carbon dioxide emissions.

Not only is the water sector energy-intensive, but against a backdrop of global demographic growth over the coming decades, water is set to become an even rarer resource. So the challenge is clear: how can the sector’s energy efficiency be improved whilst also securing a universal water supply?

Above all the water industry must focus on optimizing its supply and treatment infrastructure to ensure that as little energy as possible is required while also improving energy self-sufficiency. In its report “H2O27 Future-Proofing UK Water”, Veolia identifies six issues in the UK that the industry needs to prepare for by 2027 in order to play a full role in the energy transition.

1. Recycle water for non-drinking uses. 60% of drinking water produced in the UK is used for things that don’t require drinking water quality: toilets, operating industrial equipment, cooling power plants, etc. To avoid this waste while meeting increasing demand, the first challenge is to use recycled water for anything that doesn’t require drinking water quality. For example, it may mean reusing treated wastewater, rainwater, etc.

2. Adopt new intelligent tools. Technologies also have a leading role to play in the water industry. With innovative solutions such as data capture and predictive analytics, intelligent systems can be developed to better manage water distribution, reduce losses, and even anticipate network failures. All in the name of optimizing the operational and energy efficiency of water treatment and distribution infrastructure.

3. Opt for innovative materials. Innovative materials can help preserve water quality. For example, thanks to its impermeability, graphene is able to filter out all bacteria, microorganisms and contaminants and thereby ensure optimum water quality.

4. Build on biological resources for energy self-sufficiency. Limiting the water sector’s energy impact also involves using renewable resources. For example recovering sewage sludge: it can be converted into energy by means of anaerobic digestion. And so a wastewater treatment plant can generate its own electricity on site and reduce its energy bill!

5. Aim for carbon neutrality. To join the energy transition, the water sector must turn to renewable energies. How? By, for example, exploiting the opportunities to use  biogas, cogeneration plants, and in general by adopting low-energy systems. Effective solutions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move closer to the goal of carbon neutrality.

6. Develop a clear policy framework. Lastly, before investing in innovative energy-efficient solutions, businesses need the reassurance of a clear long-term policy framework. In January 2018 Theresa May - the British Prime Minister - launched an environmental policy with this in mind.

Citizens also have a role to play

Leaving business aside, citizens also have a special role to play in preserving our water resources. Above all, this means reducing drinking water waste through simple everyday actions: turning the taps off, taking showers instead of baths, and buying low-consumption household appliances.