A Xylem White Paper Charts a Path to Immediate and Significant Carbon Emission Reduction

Exploring how water and wastewater utilities can assume leadership in cutting greenhouse gas emissions and combating climate change.

A Xylem White Paper Charts a Path to Immediate and Significant Carbon Emission Reduction

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In taking measures against climate change, many cities and water and wastewater utilities are far ahead of the federal government.

Almost routinely, we read about these entities adopting sustainability plans and setting specific targets for renewable energy, emission reduction, energy conservation and more. One common target is net zero energy; some of the most progressive organizations are on their way to that goal, and a few have met it already.

Now Xylem has released a white paper that describes specific ways in which the water sector can take immediate action toward cutting emissions in half. In fact, Austin Alexander, vice president of sustainability and social impact, argues that water-related utilities can lead the way in greenhouse gas reduction and climate protection.

The white paper, Water Utilities: Moving Fast Toward a Zero-Carbon Future, (www.xylem.com/en-us/campaigns/race-to-zero/) notes that water utilities account for about 2% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, about the same amount as the global shipping industry, and have a carbon footprint equal to 101 coal-fired power plants.

The paper makes a case that water could be one of the fastest sectors to decarbonize — without waiting years for the advent of new technologies like carbon capture. Alexander talked about the water sector’s role in climate-change mitigation in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

Why do you see the water sector as a potential leader against climate change?

Alexander: In the water sector we consider ourselves a sustainability sector. We protect the environment; we provide clean water. Utilities customers do that day in and day out. So why shouldn’t water lead the way in greenhouse gas reduction and protecting our climate against warming?

How would you assess the progress utilities are making so far?

Alexander: Utility operators naturally tend toward what is the most efficient and most cost-effective for ratepayers. Already we see that operators and utility leaders are conscious of how much they’re spending on energy and how they can make improvements. And I have been pleasantly surprised, coming out of WEFTEC and other conferences, to see that utilities, from larger and more progressive ones to rural communities, are starting to ask: Can we take the next step and make a net-zero commitment? We have a lot of wood to chop to make significant reductions, but the willingness is certainly there.

How can private sector companies help drive progress?

Alexander: It starts with giving utilities high-quality data about our products and the impacts they have when operating. Data enables customers to make smarter and more holistic decisions.

How can utilities make major progress today toward net zero?

Alexander: The first step is to make a commitment. What you commit to and measure is what will get done. Make a commitment and put that in front of your organization and the communities you serve. That’s step one, and it’s a big step.

Once that commitment is made, what comes next?

Alexander: Step two is to make a portfolio assessment of how you are operating today. That is not easy, but it’s really important. What is our baseline? This should be part of a utility’s commitment and target-setting announcement. Where are the biggest emissions contributors? Turn on the lights to your operations. Put your arms around it and get a high-quality data set of what exists today for greenhouse gas emissions.

What about taking action toward meeting the commitment?

Alexander: There is a lot of technology available today to make significant reductions, particularly in electricity and energy use. There are improvements that can deliver substantial and immediate progress in both cost savings and greenhouse gas reductions.

What are some specific examples of these technologies?

Alexander: On the water utility side there is advanced metering infrastructure (AMI). If you are doing drive-by water meter reading, that’s a lot of time and a lot of energy and fuel consumed. AMI gives real-time metering data without having to drive house to house. In addition, a great deal of progress has been made in motor efficiency and controls. There are things like permanent magnet motors and control overlays that can be applied quite well to existing operations with very significant reductions in energy use.

Your paper says 50% of emissions can be abated with existing technologies and 95% of that impact can be achieved at zero or negative cost? Can you explain?

Alexander: One of a utility’s biggest expenditures is electricity. If they have to replace equipment anyway, or if they have new installations coming up, then installing a much more efficient product will bring power savings that more than offset any additional investment. By operating more efficiently, they will save significantly on their power bill, especially with equipment that runs 24 hours a day. There is a major impact in reducing the energy required for that equipment by 20-30%.

Does water reuse figure into this picture?

Alexander: Water reuse — particularly direct potable reuse — can be a great option, because it takes a lot of energy to send treated wastewater out to the environment and bring water back into a water treatment plant. If a utility can move to reuse, that can have environmental impacts on the water side, but also on greenhouse gas emissions and energy.

Do any of these choices extend out into the field network?

Alexander: In wastewater collection systems, utilities struggle with combined sewer overflows that have regulatory and environmental consequences. They can help prevent those events and use energy in their pumping more efficiently by overlaying an optimized digital solution. Meanwhile, at the treatment plant, there are control overlays that can help operators account for different flows during the day and adjust treatment accordingly.

What role do you see for renewable energy?

Alexander: That is a big piece of the puzzle, and the water sector needs to raise its hand and saying: We have this fabulous asset in biogas in wastewater treatment plants that in many communities is not being utilized; let’s hook up to that to help us on the journey.

What about making land and rooftops available for wind and solar energy?

Alexander: There are all kinds of options. Many utilities have large land footprints and are making use of that, particularly with solar. They’re able to power their plant and make a little profit if they can sell the surplus back to the power utility.

In the longer term, what technologies do you envision having an impact?           

Alexander: We anticipate a number of technologies coming into play that don’t exist today, especially around carbon capture. Inevitably, getting to net zero will require some kind of offsets and carbon capture, but we need to let that market develop, so that we can approach it in a highly credible way. Another area is process emissions; in particular emissions coming off the anaerobic or aerobic digestion processes which make up a large share of utilities’ emission sets. That is an area where new and advanced technologies will help.

How optimistic are you that the move toward net zero will get traction?

Alexander: I’m very optimistic based on the excitement we’re seeing from utilities around the U.S. and globally. I think they see the value; they’re excited about it. Let’s make the investments and make the most of our water and wastewater infrastructure, and do it in a sustainable way. Especially in the U.S., we are starting to consider infrastructure investments that can have meaningful impacts on high-quality utility services while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. If a municipality wants to make a big step, the first place to go should be their water and wastewater utilities. They touch every single home in the community.

There will never be a one-size-fits-all solution. But we have so many options that can be beneficial both on the cost and the environmental sides. Utilities are starting to explore how they can pull together different options to make a truly sustainable treatment operation.

What is Xylem doing to mitigate its own carbon footprint and climate impact?

Alexander: On Sept. 30 we announced a commitment to be net zero across our entire value chain by 2050. That includes our supply chain as well as our own operations, and the footprint our products have when operating at a customer level. Our upstream supply chain and the downstream impact of our products account for over 90% of our greenhouse emissions, so that’s where we are focusing much of our effort.

Our own facilities are making adjustments today. We’ve committed to a 100% electric vehicle fleet. Our largest 22 sites that contribute the most to our environmental footprint are on their way to 100% renewable energy. We’ve also set an interim target to reduce our emissions in line with holding global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. We need near-term targets that hold current management teams accountable for making reductions today.   


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