Improving utility innovation uptake in the US

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The Water Research Foundation has launched a new strategy that is set to boost practical demonstration of innovative technologies at the utility level. Keith Hayward spoke to Christobel Ferguson, WRF’s Chief Innovation Officer.

There are just so many challenges coming at the water sector – almost like a perfect storm,” says Dr Christobel Ferguson, Chief Innovation Officer at The Water Research Foundation (WRF) in the US.

In addition to the latest challenges from the pandemic, Ferguson sees, for example, that the sector is having to cope with climate change impacts, manage an embedded, ageing infrastructure that was not constructed to deal with those impacts, and an ageing workforce.

On top of this, there are customer expectations to contend with – amplified by the way social media can draw attention to issues such as mains breaks. “The expectations have never been higher,” she says.

“All of those things coming together means that a lot of people in the sector feel a real pressure and a real urgency to be able to continuously improve and to innovate to meet these challenges.”

There is, says Ferguson, an “unprecedented need for our water utility sector to be able to respond really, really quickly – faster than it has ever had to respond before, I think”.

A new strategy

Against this backdrop, WRF is launching a new strategic approach to innovation this year. “The pace of change and the pace of the demands that are on the sector mean that we have to step up,” says Ferguson.

The Foundation’s new strategy aims to help speed progress in the sector by supporting showcase pilot projects that other utilities can look to for inspiration and, importantly, an evidence base.

Ferguson says that WRF has always had an applied research programme, but that this has traditionally been based on bench-scale research and the delivery of reports, with work carried out by academic and consulting partners. Working alongside WRF’s Chief Research Officer, John Albert, Ferguson says the goal is to create a pipeline from the research programme so that research outcomes are “seamlessly implemented and tested at scale” to help utilities use them much more quickly than they have in the past.

Ferguson says that WRF will do this by putting together consortia of researchers, utilities, consultants, academics and, in some cases, regulators. This will allow testing of research findings at scale, meaning utilities will be able to make a quick assessment of whether a solution is scalable – whether it is feasible, cost-effective and actually works when scaled up, she says. Importantly, she adds that it will cover unintended consequences, whether within the plant or beyond, for customers or downstream water supplies, for example.

“Everyone in the water sector is now moving towards the circular economy. We are all realising how all of the pieces are connected,” says Ferguson. “We will want to be doing technological and economic assessments and consequence assessments of the scale-up of any of these research outcomes.”

Everyone in the water sector is now moving towards the circular economy. We are all realising how all of the pieces are connected

Achieving leverage

WRF is a non-profit organisation with around 1200 subscribers. It was created in 2018 through the integration of the WateReuse Research Foundation, the Water Environment Research Foundation, and the Water Research Foundation.

Ferguson explains that the intention is to take some of the projects in the research programme that are already producing results at a bench scale and to move these to a demonstration scale at pilot utilities. “Some of our subscribers have already come on board and offered their facilities and pilot scale plants,” she notes.

To do this, WRF aims to leverage the funding it receives from its members with external grants, for which it is applying to federal and private foundation sources. “That’s the exciting development,” adds Ferguson.

The new pilot projects will be done under the banner of WRF’s Innovation Program. According to Ferguson, they are already in double digits in terms on the number of grant application submissions that WRF is involved with so far.

Christobel Ferguson ©WRF

In terms of focus, Ferguson explains that there have been a lot of conversations with partner organisations, water agencies and subscribers. “We have a role to help filter that information and synthesise it down to the key topic areas where people really have a desire to innovate and where they think the biggest gains can be made,” she says.

Having done so, WRF has identified four topic portfolios to progress as the highest priority innovation needs. These are: energy efficiency and resource recovery, especially at wastewater resource recovery facilities; nitrogen reduction to help address concerns about eutrophication and algal blooms; removal and destruction of PFAS, including treatment of the granular activated carbon used to remove these chemicals from source waters; and water reuse, covering carbon neutrality, cost-effectiveness, and processes to enhance its uptake.

Progress on these topic areas will be dictated in part by the availability of grants. For example, the US Department of Energy issued a call for proposals on energy efficiency late last year. According to Ferguson, the projects are mostly three-year projects.

Another project involves working with a philanthropic organisation to make a side-by-side evaluation of three different anammox technologies, targeting nitrogen reduction. In what would be a one-year project, Ferguson says the aim is to establish whether one emerges as a clear favourite, following which that would be scaled up in a larger demonstration installation.

We are going to be well positioned to hit the ground running with this innovation action programme

Innovation across the US

One particular hurdle that technology suppliers in the US face is that there are state-level approvals for technologies. “If you are a technology provider or a vendor, having to get approval over and over 50 times is just not viable,” she says. “It is an incredible frustration and cost,” she adds, noting that it can be a problem for utilities too, slowing their ability to make decisions on infrastructure investments.

The US EPA is aware of these concerns, and is looking to improve the situation. For example, it issued a call for proposals late last year for innovative water technologies for use in very small drinking water systems, or private wells or source waters. Under this, the EPA’s Office of Research and Development said it is aiming to facilitate multi-state cooperation and to accelerate development and deployment of such technologies.

As noted in the call, there are more than 148,000 public drinking water systems across the US, serving more than 300 million people. The vast majority of these – 97% – are small systems, serving 10,000 people or fewer, with very small systems being those serving 500 or fewer. The EPA asked that submissions identify case studies to establish effective ways for multiple state regulatory agencies to cooperate to prevent or minimise state-by-state testing regimes.

“The US EPA has identified this problem,” notes Ferguson, and this type of initiative provides a response that can help overcome the current stumbling blocks to innovation in the US.

With the prospect of greater funding from sources such as the EPA and Department of Energy, on water issues generally and on climate change and energy efficiency, the new strategy strengthens the opportunity for WRF to contribute to accelerating the uptake of innovation in the US. “It is a massive opportunity,” says Ferguson.

“We are going to be well positioned to hit the ground running with this innovation action programme. It is about getting out there and really helping people to actually implement these changes and demonstrate they can work,” she says.

Ferguson has brought more than 30 years of water industry experience in Australia with her to the role. “It is quite interesting to see that many of the challenges are the same,” she says. “I think some of the lessons I have learnt in Australia may be useful here,” she says, but adds jokingly that there were similar issues around the need for state-by-state validation: “At least Australia only has eight states. That challenge is the same, it is just harder here in America because there are 50 states.” •