Dark Clouds and a Silver Lining

May 1, 2008
Energy management, water efficiency and sustainable ways to reduce operational costs seem to be top priorities ...

by Carlos David Mogollón

Energy management, water efficiency and sustainable ways to reduce operational costs seem to be top priorities in the water and wastewater industry with increasing concern over climate change (see p. 16), recessionary fears and continued fallout as oil again reaches historic levels –as of this writing above $135 a barrel.

Following a jump of nearly 5% in 2007, average electricity costs for U.S. industrial or large commercial entities rose another 3.9% in the last year, according to an annual survey of 24 investor-owned electric companies by NUS Consulting Group that cited an average of 9.44 cents per kWh as of April 1. Customers in California, Illinois, New York and Texas pay some of the highest electricity prices, and those in North Carolina, Missouri, Virginia and Ohio pay the least.

Meanwhile, water project spending over the following 12 months is expected to increase but not at high levels of recent years, according to a ChangeWave survey of 147 water industry professionals released in April. A substantial 14% fewer felt water industry spending would increase from the previous survey in June 2007, with 67% still optimistic about an increase. The report also hinted at a possible recession as cause for the decline. Analysts, it pointed out, recently reported 40% of U.S. freshwater use is from industrial applications, but those levels normally decline during a recession. Notably, stock prices of many U.S. water utility companies have fallen due to fears of a recession. And by better than a 2-to-1 margin, survey respondents believe that would lead to a drop in water project spending.

Still another April report from the Virginia Water Resources Research Center at Virginia Tech analyzes water inputs for 11 energy sources and five power generating methods, noting the most water-efficient energy sources are natural gas and synthetic fuels from coal gasification while the least water-efficient are fuel ethanol and biodiesel. It also found that geothermal and hydroelectric energy use the least amount of water, while nuclear plants use the most. This study is part of a multi-college partnership at Virginia Tech led by center associate director Tamim Younos that proposes a unique approach to managing water and energy resources, called the Decentralized Energy and Water Systems (DEWS).

The Virginia Tech study brings to mind research by Prof. John Anthony Allan from King’s College-London, who’ll be awarded the 2008 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate in August. Anthony came up with the concept of “virtual water,” being an assessment of all the water inputs for a particular product as well as materials and energy required to produce, package, transport and bring it to market. For instance, ethanol, whose rapid rise in U.S. production (from 4.264 billion gallons in 2005 – when it passed Brazil as the world leader – to 6.498 billion gallons in 2007) is one reason for the recent alarming rise in food costs, consumes four gallons of water for each gallon produced. As such, its viability as a sustainable biofuel is now questioned in favor of other renewable energy forms such as solar, wind and biogas/biosolids recovery from wastewater. See sister magazine Water & Wastewater International’s April/May issue online for an interview that touches on the subject with Andrew Benedek, founder of Canada’s Zenon Environmental (now part of GE Water) who’ll be honored at the inaugural Singapore International Water Week in June.

In this month’s “Executive Corner” column, we interview Dow Water Solutions’ Ian Barbour, who points to improved efficiency in production and operation of membranes as crucial elements in making them a more viable solution globally whether for desalination or wastewater treatment. He also notes that membrane systems can be run on wind and solar power as well.

The ray of sunshine continues to be the fact that with the dollar’s low value compared to the Euro and other major currencies, U.S. industry is in a better competitive position – and continues to look for more energy and water efficient ways to help gain market share.

Carlos David Mogollón, Managing Editor

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