A life in water

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Gustaf Olsson talks to Erika Yarrow-Soden about some of the motivations behind his latest book and his long career in water.


Now retired from Lund University, Sweden, Professor Gustaf Olsson has devoted his research to applications of industrial automation, including control and automation of water systems, power production, electrical power systems and industrial processes. In recent years, he has focused on the water-energy nexus, trying to explain how energy exploration, generation and use are related to water operations and consumption.

He has also been a long-time supporter of the IWA, having been involved in IWA activities since 1973. He has served as the editor-in-chief of Water Science and Technology, on the IWA Strategic Council, and on the IWA Board of Directors. He has received the IWA Publishing Award, and is an Honorary Member of IWA and an IWA Distinguished Fellow. In recent years, he has been mentoring IWA Young Water Professionals.

Gustaf Olsson

Describing his career, Gustaf explains that he began as a nuclear engineer. He says: “This was in 1967 and we thought nuclear power was going to save the world. Then, I gradually got into automatic control, and when I was working in automatic control I had a challenge from a colleague who was working in wastewater treatment. This was back in 1973. He said that he thought it was strange that wastewater treatment plants were always designed as if the load and the flow rate going into the plant were constant. He asked if automatic control could help. So, I did a feasibility study.

“What they had done over the years was to overdesign the plant so that it could cope with the highest volume. I told them that they could build plants with smaller baselines and vary the control of the plant according to the load. What showed the greatest potential was the control of dissolved oxygen. They were overaerating all the time and that was costing a lot of money. I showed them that they could save 20-50% of the energy costs.

“This was the starting point and I got caught in the challenges that I was offered. We got the chance to work on a full-scale plant in Stockholm that was computerised. At that time, the computer consisted of three or four large cabinets, but we managed to make experiments and to create the first computer control system on a full-scale plant in 1975.”

When Gustaf joined IWA, it was then called the International Association for Water Pollution Research. He attended its first conference in London in 1973. “I went there and learnt a lot, and got a lot of contacts. I have participated in all IWA conferences since 1973. The good thing about the conference planning was that it was about personal initiatives and that was a great inspiration.”

In 2006, Gustaf became editor-in-chief of the IWA journal Water Science and Technology. “We didn’t have an online publishing system,” Gustaf explains. “This forced us to have personal contact. We had papers coming in from nearly 50 different specialty groups, and this means you get to learn about things beyond your specialty and become able to communicate with other specialists. This is becoming more urgent for us. I’ve met so many people that keep polishing the fifth decimal on a model or a method. If you are lost in your silo, it is dangerous. It was a lesson for me and taught me how we need to collaborate to solve the problems in water.

“Water and energy are so closely related. When I wrote my first book about water and energy, I was upset about the cynical operations of the oil companies. The first book got a good reception, so I was asked to write a second edition, which was extended by 50%. Since then, things have moved on and the use of renewable energy has changed dramatically. So, I wrote a separate book on clean water using solar and wind energy. We have one billion people outside of the power grids and another one billion living with unreliable power grids. If we could have decentralised electricity for these people, it would be fantastic from a water point of view. That energy could be used for biological treatment, for pumping, for desalination. I was happy that the book was available through open access because my goal was for it to be available for people on low incomes.

“The capital cost for traditional diesel generators is relatively low, but the cost of fuel is rising. In contrast, the capital cost of solar is high, but there are no fuel costs. The financial institutions at the time hadn’t adapted to this, but they are beginning to now. The payback time for a family could be three or four years compared with diesel. Wind power is not very suitable for people living in remote areas because many roads aren’t suitable for the transportation of heavy equipment, and you have moving parts that can be problematic. Solar is more robust; certainly a solar panel may need to be serviced, but solar panels are scalable. You can start with one and then add to that. So, I was encouraged that there was a possibility for decentralised water and power for water treatment.

“I was then asked to write another book and I wanted to understand how we got to where we are today – population, energy use, emissions – and I started to test my ideas on young people, and they got very interested. I wanted to explore how things are connected, not just water and energy but economic systems, financial inequalities, and lifestyles. Very few people write about lifestyles and economics because it’s provocative, but as a retired academic I can afford to be provocative. I wanted to say that we have to cooperate to solve these problems and it’s not enough to just be a water engineer. We have to be able to communicate with different professionals.

“What is encouraging is that I have a lot of contact with young people, and they need to drive this. I’m optimistic when I talk to young people. We need to support young people; this is my driving force.” •


More information

Books by Gustaf Olsson published by IWA Publishing:

Water interactions: a systemic view. ISBN 9781789062892 (August 2022)

Water and energy: threats and opportunities – Second Edition. ISBN 9781780406930

Clean water using solar and wind: outside the power grid. ISBN 9781780409436