Climate smart utilities and the pipe to power push

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Climate change demands that utilities do more on mitigation, with a push to carbon neutrality, and on adaptation. As IWA launches its Climate Smart Utilities initiative, Kala Vairavamoorthy calls on the sector to broaden its thinking and ambitions.


The very visible signs of a changing climate, such as those we have seen in the forest fires from the USA, to the Amazon, to Australia, provoke our emotions. We look to science to make sense of what is happening to our world, to frame and guide the responses our emotions call for. And if science is about anything, it is about anticipating outcomes – seeking certainty.

The global efforts of the science community to gain certainty about the prospects for climate change come together in the collective push behind the assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Five cycles of assessment have been completed; the sixth is under way.

It is a huge undertaking. Each cycle culminates in a Synthesis Report, and the report for the latest assessment cycle is due for release in 2022. This will be preceded by three Working Group reports, respectively covering the physical science, climate change mitigation, and adaptation to climate change.

Work by each of these groups will bring fresher and sharper insights relevant to water. Cities – particularly relevant to IWA’s focus – are set to be given special attention in the Sixth Assessment Report, anticipating a Special Report on climate change and cities in the Seventh Assessment Cycle.

Certainty enough for action

As the search for greater certainty continues, we surely know enough to justify radical action. The warning signals of the first five cycles of assessment of the IPCC and any number of other sources prompted countries to seal the Paris Agreement on climate change.

It remains unclear the extent to which governments will indeed act, but policy is shifting. Seismically so in the case of President Xi Jinping of China having announced to the virtual UN General Assembly meeting in September that the country aims to be carbon neutral by 2060, with a goal for emissions to peak before 2030. The European Union is among those taking a lead. Such signals allow us to envisage the kind of world water and wastewater utilities can both help define and contribute to.

Step One in the EU’s ambitions set out in its European Green Deal is a goal of transforming to a low carbon economy by 2030. A mere decade away, this suggests a radical transformation in its own right.

Step Two for the EU is a goal of being climate neutral by 2050. This marks a commitment to delivering on the Paris Agreement, and the EU submitted its long-term strategy to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in March of this year.

Parties to the convention are required to submit their Nationally Determined Contributions for emissions reductions to a public registry as part of the Paris Agreement. Currently there are 186 first submissions, and three second submissions.

Recent contributions from other parts of the world include Japan’s statement that it will “strive to achieve a ‘decarbonised society’ as close as possible to 2050 with disruptive innovations, such as artificial photosynthesis and other CCUS (carbon capture, utilisation and storage) technologies and realisation of a hydrogen society”.

Even with these ambitions, it is abundantly clear that adaptation measures will be needed. Here the policy directions emerging can be seen in the national adaptation plans that developing countries have been “invited” to log with the UNFCCC’s NAP Central.

As of September, 20 of these plans were available on the NAP Central website. The national adaptation plan for Chile, for example, covers both mitigation and adaptation, and includes references to water. Ethiopia’s plans, prepared with technical support from USAID-Ethiopia, United States Forest Service International Programs, and the International Institute for Sustainable Development, features 18 adaptation options, with a number relating directly to water.

This change in the policy world is mirrored in the world of climate finance. International financial institutions are supporting change, as are others. Europe’s Green Deal brings climate action together into an economic package.

On top of this, there is hope for further commitment at the COP26 meeting, due to be held in Glasgow, UK, in November 2021.

And now we find ourselves in a time when the climate and development agendas have been overtaken for the time being by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the efforts to respond to it.

Here, too, we see signs of how the world of the water and wastewater utility will be shaped by developments and, vice versa, the potential for utilities to contribute to progress.

In its ‘COVID-19 in an urban world’ Policy Brief of July this year, the UN noted: “There is an urgent need to rethink and transform cities to respond to the reality of COVID-19 and potential future pandemics, and to recover better, by building more resilient, inclusive and sustainable cities. We know that this is possible. The rapid shifts in society due to COVID-19 present a powerful lesson that society is capable of near-overnight transformation that is needed to confront our most urgent threats, such as the climate and pollution crises that threaten the very viability of cities.”

It added: “Make large-scale public investments in affordable and adequate housing and slum upgrading to ensure that marginalised groups have access to shelter that facilitates physical and mental health during the pandemic and beyond. Future-proof investments to ensure extension of adequate water and sanitation coverage are also needed.”

It is into this evolving space that water and wastewater utilities need to develop their responses and set course for change.

Action on adaptation

Many metrics can frame the warning that the water sector needs to prepare for a future with a changed climate. At the same time, climate will not feature as an issue in isolation – population in particular is a parallel driver that shapes the landscape in which utilities must provide their services. Combining climate and population, results of a study published earlier this year in the American Geophysical Union journal Earth’s Future showed that the population under water stress is expected to increase by 50% by 2050 under a low population growth and emissions scenario in which the Paris Agreement targets are met. This could double under a high population growth and emissions scenario compared to the 2010 baseline.

This overlap between climate and population hints at how utilities need to engage with their own prospects. Water resources and the ecosystems upon which they depend will be impacted by the changing climate. Resource availability will change and so too the competition for access. Expectations of the need to reduce network losses will shift. It will be increasingly necessary to work with customers of all types to manage demand, amplified where there is population growth. Utilities may increasingly need to look to broaden their resources mix.

The flip side of water resource scarcity is the anticipated peak intensity of rainfall events. Here, utilities will need to be better able to cope with the loading of their infrastructure, whether intentional, for combined wastewater systems, or unintentional, in the case of increases in flow due to sewer infiltration. Then there are the utility assets themselves – are they at risk from damage, from river or urban flooding, or from coastal impacts, and what should the utility do to protect them?

So, climate cannot be isolated, and it goes to the heart of the activities of each utility. Each activity will have a climate dimension, and the aim of IWA’s new Climate Smart Utilities initiative is to help utilities share experiences of how to progress across their operations to cope.

As they engage with this, are there changes in the way utilities must think and how they should view future needs and opportunities?

Resilience dominates this future perspective. That means a need for utilities themselves to be resilient, and for them to contribute to the wider resilience of the communities they serve.

Developing resilient infrastructure will be challenging. It asks planners and engineers to acknowledge that, in addition to the basic expectation of reliability under normal conditions, there is a need for it to survive and bounce back from extreme events that exceed design conditions. The ability to rapidly restore infrastructure to working order will be as important as preventing its failure in the first place. This means rethinking practices and design principles that are currently deeply embedded.

Design so that infrastructure can cope with flood and drought is traditionally rooted in return periods that anticipate the scale and frequency of future events. It is rooted in stationarity. Our changing climate upends this approach. We have been witnessing the death of stationarity. Most practitioners recognise this, but are currently not well equipped to deal with this uncertainty – what do we do when our past water data cannot be trusted to serve as a basis for our planning, analysis, and decision-making?

So, future resilience requires a rethink on how to deal with uncertainty (see article by Casey Brown).

Even though we face an uncertain future, we nonetheless know that we need to adapt. This means that we will be best served by infrastructure and systems that can adapt and be adapted. We need creativity and innovation in the area of flexible water systems – systems will be characterised by their ability to cope safely with uncertainties, adapting to new, different or changing requirements. New techniques such as real-options analysis acknowledge the value of being able to expand, downsize or repurpose infrastructure investments rapidly.

The latest process technologies are enabling more modular (decentralised) approaches to water management that give internal degrees of freedom, allowing many combinations to be considered, so flexibility can be optimised over time. Distributed infrastructure reduces risk through diversification and is less vulnerable to extreme events because any failures can be contained in smaller systems, rather than affecting everyone.

Small systems foster localised reuse by minimising the distance between households and treatment facilities. This in turn reduces the energy needed to move water and the expense of large pipes, both of which reduce the carbon footprint of a system. This reuse dimension connects with the need to embrace a circular economy approach in a resource-limited future. A ‘one water’ approach will need connections to be made between different users and different actors, both for water and the resources carried in it in used water streams.

Distributed systems also provide a great deal of flexibility because they can be built and upgraded in stages. They can evolve over time and adapt efficiently and effectively to climate change and the inherent uncertainties associated with it. (See, also, interview with Lynn Broaddus)

Importantly, resilience and decentralisation are both perspectives that go beyond the traditional boundaries of utilities. They call on other actors, contributing to an integrated solution supported by a systems-based view. But they also call for a shift in approach and outlook on the part of the utilities, so that they can contribute to the whole.

The mitigation mix

Mitigation is the other half of the climate story. It is the crucial half of the story – without question, the world needs to adapt. But we cannot adapt ourselves out of the climate crisis. Our carbon emissions have to be stemmed in order to avoid excessive global heating and the destructive cycle this will unleash.

Mitigation efforts have been shaped by a sector view. The big emitters of greenhouse gases are transport, electricity generation, and industrial use, followed by commercial and residential use and agriculture. The scale of the mitigation needs, amplified by the continuing struggle to adequately cut emissions of the biggest emitters, means progress is needed across the board. We see this in the ambitious goals of the EU, for example, and its vision to cut emissions by 2030 and to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. For there to be any hope of delivering on this vision, there have to be contributions from all sectors and all aspects of life.

For the water sector, the Climate Smart Utilities initiative aims to help accelerate progress on two fronts in particular, as far as mitigation is concerned. One is the potential to treat sewage as a renewable resource from which biogas can be produced – an approach that is hardly new, given that noted landmarks in the long history of this include use of biogas from a sewage treatment plant to fuel streetlamps in Exeter, UK, in 1895. The other is the energy use of utilities, both water and wastewater. Water and wastewater systems have always sought to make the best possible use of gravity, but society’s demands call for more than that. Moving water, clean or dirty, needs energy, and a lot of it. On top of this, there are the energy demands of treatment. So, there is a challenge for utilities to reduce their energy demands, especially for pumping and treatment steps such as aeration.

These two fronts, with the wider range of opportunities to improve energy efficiency, make use of renewables such as wind and solar, and exploit other renewable opportunities across utility networks, have allowed a new, viable paradigm to be realised – the energy positive utility.

There is a continuum of opportunity – from generating enough power at a wastewater plant to cover its energy needs through to producing a surplus, and beyond to improving energy efficiency and increasing energy production such that the combined operations of a water and wastewater utility are energy positive, with the additional power available for the grid or surrounding community.

Utilities are achieving this, and notable examples include those in Denmark.

The Climate Smart Utilities initiative is very much about such practical opportunities. Climate action, such as that envisaged by the EU, needs rapid action over the coming decade. The initiative will help utilities share their experiences and identify the concrete steps they can take.

Systems opportunities on mitigation

Climate smart utilities do not exist in isolation. They need to be able to see the bigger picture within which they operate and can have an influence. This connects with the need – at the heart of IWA thinking – to take a systems view of the water sector.

There are costs and benefits associated with climate-related action by water and wastewater utilities, and utilities can seek to optimise these. So too, there are costs and benefits from a systems perspective. For mitigation, this opens up avenues of thought around whether wastewater utilities should in the long term be green energy producers, or whether they should buy green energy and divert their carbon to other uses. Similarly, domestic carbon footprints need to be brought down as part of broader mitigation efforts. Actions to bring economies of scale in a local context might include greater use of district heating, for which wastewater systems can contribute biogas, power, or recovered heat. A systems perspective, adapted to the specific local, perhaps city-wide, context opens up opportunities for transformation.

This systems perspective makes clear that climate change is not an issue to be dealt with in isolation. Thinking around the optimal use of the carbon resource arriving at wastewater treatment plants connects directly with resource recovery and circular economy thinking. Indeed, in a wider circular economy landscape, it can be questioned whether carbon should be arriving at wastewater treatment plants at all.

But utilities have invested, are investing, and will invest in important and long-lived assets needed to deliver on a primary function. The task for climate smart utilities is to do so in an optimal way, identifying opportunities for flexibility or a change of direction. Some of the examples appearing in this edition of the magazine, such as using thermal hydrolysis to extract more methane from sewage, or exploring variable loading of anaerobic digesters to better match energy output to daily grid power demand cycles, illustrate precisely this. It is such efforts – including the research, imagination and practical commitment involved – that the Climate Smart Utilities initiative seeks to support.

Sharing for success

There are innumerable specifics and local conditions that shape the solutions needed in towns and cities around the world. At the same time, we can see the direction of travel – towards a destination where utilities need to be smarter, both on mitigation and on adaptation. IWA’s Smart Water Utilities initiative calls on utilities to share their experiences – to highlight specific opportunities, but just as importantly to inspire action whatever the specifics. In doing so, our joint efforts can shape a smarter future.


The author

Dr Kala Vairavamoorthy is CEO of the International Water Association