By Tammy Bernier
Compared to 100 years ago, the basic methods of water and wastewater treatment have not markedly changed. While measurement and controls have advanced, the screening, biological treatment, filtration, disinfection, and sludge management processes of today would probably be recognizable to an operator in the early 1900s.
During this same period, we have gone from the telegraph to the Internet and from sailing ships to intergalactic satellites; the cost of communications has declined from dollars to pennies; and engine efficiencies have multiplied exponentially.
Meanwhile, water and wastewater utility costs to the public have failed to keep pace with the costs of providing these services, and it represents a major financial stress for our municipalities -- all while much of our utilities' infrastructure has aged beyond its years of intended use.
Water and wastewater facilities represent 4 percent of our total energy usage in the United States, yet, in theory, wastewater contains more than enough energy to power treatment facilities. Moreover, only 7 percent of the 32 billion gallons per day (GPD) of effluent generated in the U.S. is currently being reclaimed and reused -- all while our aquifers are at record low levels and half the country is experiencing drought conditions.
Change Is Coming
Within the next few years, many baby boomers will retire from the water industry, leaving us with fewer experts and far fewer workers. Traditional funding sources are expected to continue their decline, so new ways to pay for the reconstruction of our water and wastewater infrastructure -- public-private partnerships, direct private equity, privatization, full-value pricing, and others -- will necessarily be evolving. We can expect energy conservation and resource recovery to kick into overdrive as the world population races toward 8 billion individuals and the natural pressures of demand outstrip the supply.
Innovation Is the Best Option
The pressure to accommodate change will drive our traditionally risk-averse industry to embrace new approaches at an accelerated pace. The demand for a zero-energy footprint will also drive improvements in co-generation efficiencies, energy conservation and recovery, and resource recovery.
Further, process methods will be dissected to find new ways to reduce reliance on the high-energy consumption stages of biological treatment, and post-treatment byproducts, such as sludge, will be reduced or redirected toward value generation.
Acceptance of current processes as "good enough" will be less likely as broad-based change causes the hunt for efficiencies to intensify. Also, solutions from other disciplines and industries will be brought into play as industries typically tend to change from the outside rather than from the inside (e.g., the computer industry invasion of the phone industry). Industry outsiders, after all, are not encumbered with our known and accepted paradigms.
'Seeing' Where Change Is Possible
Everything can be improved, but only if we can recognize the problem and see the opportunity. To see the opportunity, we must identify what in our processes and systems has become a pain point or problem to be solved. It's a red flag when we accept a problem as "just the way it is" or "as good as it gets." Consider Henry Ford's famous quote: "If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."
Some of the questions we need to consider are:
- Can we achieve zero energy -- or perhaps even sell back to the grid for added revenue?
- Can we optimize our processes and better protect our systems with finer screening?
- Can we reduce the need for maintenance?
- Can we eliminate the need for dynamic sealing systems and the damage they cause when they fail?
- Can we achieve a higher percentage of reuse and resource recovery?
- Can we remove endocrine disruptors economically?
- Can we become an effective supplier of the nutrients that we remove from the waste stream?
The Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association is working on these "known" challenges as well as many others. However, innovation is not born in a vacuum. It requires partnership with operators, owners and engineers to identify the problem and working as a team to develop and implement a solution. It requires a common commitment to find a better way in spite of the apparent comfort of status quo solutions.
The question is not whether there will be change in the water and wastewater industry, but when, who, or what -- and we must ask ourselves what we can do to be the change we want to see.
About the Author: Tammy Bernier is the president and CEO of Duperon Corporation, a specialist in preliminary liquids/solids separation. She currently serves on the WWEMA Executive Committee as treasurer.