October 31, 2017 EnergyEnvironment

The bumpy road to low energy, low carbon utilities

As the impacts of climate change and urbanization rapidly increase, there is no doubt that the water and wastewater utility of the future will need to be a low energy, low carbon, sustainable and water-wise utility. While there are already some trailblazers, the road to universal low energy, low carbon will be bumpy, and has a strong resemblance to Roger’s Curve for Diffusion of Innovation.

Leading by example

Only a handful of enthusiasts and visionaries recognize this need and leverage the opportunities presented by implementing climate mitigation measures. An example of an innovator is the Danish wastewater treatment plant Marselisborg with an energy efficiency rate of 153%. Innovators are not only found in developed economies. There are pioneers and early adopters in low- and middle-income countries as well. Utilities in Jordan, Mexico, Peru and Thailand participating the WaCCliM [1] project are actively exploring and finding solutions.

Innovation comes in many forms, and not all mitigation solutions are high tech or new. ‘Simple’ improvements such as smarter pump operation schedules, cleaning of diffusers or starting a consumer awareness campaign, are low-cost solutions that can result in significant emission reductions and energy savings.

Crossing the Chasm

Why then aren’t more utilities embarking on a journey towards carbon neutrality and energy efficiency? The old adage of “all that glitters is not gold” helps explain this in part. Payback periods of low carbon measures may be relatively short, but still require a high initial investment. Installing a co-generator to valorise biogas seems like a no-brainer considering it can be profitable in 2-5 years. For utilities, especially in low and middle-income countries, finding the funds remains a major barrier. Combined with the need for capacity building and a lack of supportive policies and regulations, it’s not a surprise that decarbonisation is not a priority. Yet.

So, what’s the special sauce?

Government commitments to cap the global temperature rise by realizing National Determined Contributions (NDCs) to reduce carbon emissions, means in the near future all sectors will need to report on their greenhouse gas emissions. Water utilities, which can contribute up to 20% to reducing emissions nationally, will be in the spotlight. This is where ‘data’ comes into the picture. In the water sector, not a single conference goes by that does not end up with a plea for better quality data that can inform decision making.

The free ECAM tool, developed to support utilities in emerging economies, offers a means to understand where in their systems the sources of GHG emissions and energy consumption are highest. Initially this is done with data typically available to utilities, and progressively with more data collected on sub-systems of interest. With a sound baseline based on IPCC methodology, utilities can start exploring which measures make economic sense. The ability to monitor progress is a prerequisite for utilities to tap into international climate funds, and this tool may be one of the keys to bridge that chasm.

The time is now

We live at a critical time. The window of opportunity to combat climate change and to secure our water resources is rapidly closing. Only with the actual numbers one can convince the majority of the need to decarbonise. There will always be sceptics or worse saboteurs (yes Donald, I’m thinking of you), who are not convinced even when a Harvey takes place in their own backyard. For the majority of us though, just a little nudge is sufficient.

There is a genuine need to convince more early adopters from the 68% of pragmatists and conservatives on the Diffusion of Innovation Curve. The IWA, together with GIZ, has developed a roadmap and knowledge platform Carbon neutral urban water aimed at speeding up this process. This platform supports water and wastewater utilities to implement low energy, low carbon solutions by providing a tested approach, as well as guidelines, tools and inspiring case studies. According to Rogers, bumps in the road are inherent to diffusing innovation, but we can drive change by paving the way for utilities to go from grey to green…

Join us on this journey!

Interested in how you can help bring utilities on board by becoming a water-climate-energy ambassador?

• Share a case study, a knowledge resource or apply to be part of the review committee of the Carbon Neutral Urban Water Knowledge Platform (eva.promes@iwahq.org);
• Join the launch of the platform Carbon neutral urban water on 6 November at COP23 in Bonn, or 14 November at the Water Development Conference & Exhibition in Buenos Aires;
Explore the platform Carbon neutral urban water and exchange experiences and lessons learned or ask questions, through the Low Energy, Low Carbon Group on IWA-Connect.


[1] The Water and Wastewater Companies for Climate Mitigation (WaCCliM) project, support utilities to reduce carbon emissions and increase energy efficiency. The project is a joint initiative between the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and the International Water Association (IWA). This project is part of the International Climate Initiative (IKI). The German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB) supports this initiative on the basis of a decision adopted by the German Bundestag.