Extreme measures

The water industry is a heavy user of energy. And extreme weather caused by climate change is a growing burden for the industry. As water quality requirements have been driven up, so have the energy requirements to achieve them. Merlin Hyman reveals all.

Today, climate change is an undisputed fact, which is affecting all our lives globally. Both man and beast share the environment we live in and the habitat we rely on is changing noticeably from year to year.

The extreme cycles which were once one in 50-year events can now often be biannual, with ten-year events ostensibly becoming annual ones. All political parties now accept that climate change is one of the key challenges we face.

Responding to this huge challenge will affect all sectors of business including the water industry – a heavy user of energy. The water industry will have to work to help prevent dangerous climate change by reducing carbon emissions, and adapt to the changes in the climate that are already inevitable.

Adaptation poses major challenges. In the South, there are looming difficulties with the dramatic development and population growth without the infrastructure to cope in an already overloaded system.

The vagary of global warming is causing long periods of drought and extremes of rainfall both ends of the spectrum. With the growing extremes of rainfall in the winter, higher volumes and intensities of flows to sewage treatment works will have to be re-evaluated. This is so the magnitude of pollution that can be carried over during storm flows can be assessed in relation to the impact of increased organic accumulation discharging to receiving waters.

Although current practices in the UK include assessment of storm flows, treatment works continue to become overwhelmed during storm periods because of the higher extremes of rainfall. However, equally urgently, the water industry must look at its own use of energy. As standards of water quality have been driven up, the energy demand to meet these has also grown.

The Water Framework Directive looks set to continue to drive measures to improve the quality of our rivers and watercourses. However, we cannot continue on the current path of adding new energy-intensive treatment processes to meet these new standards. We need a new approach. Driving energy efficiency is closely related to the problems created by the current procurement cycle in the water industry, which tends to be closely tied to the five-year regulatory framework.

This leads to short-term thinking and a focus on capital rather than whole-life costs – as well as to a boom-and-bust cycle which damages the capacity of the supply chain to deliver efficient solutions.

The Environment Industries Commission (EIC) has recently written to water regulator Ofwat and met environment minister Ian Pearson calling for measures to change the current system, to reduce the link between the procurement cycle and the regulatory framework, and to embed whole-life costing.

If this could be achieved, it would be a major step towards procurement decisions considering how water treatment objectives can most efficiently be delivered, rather than just bolting on a further treatment process to meet new standards.

Reducing carbon emissions also requires a better approach to energy and carbon auditing for wastewater treatment.

Assessment should be measured with more emphasis to a holistic approach taking into account all effluent and storm flows entering the works, accumulated sludge wastes and sludge production following wastewater treatment and the final disposal routes for the treated wastewater and accumulated sludge.

In addition, all other costs and energy inputs should be taken into account including any chemical additives and their production, transport, external processing and operational requirements. This adds a considerable number of carbon units, energy and operational costs to water treatment.

Environment secretary David Miliband will be speaking at an EIC conference on the impact of the new political focus on the environment, and climate change in particular, on November 8 (visit www.eic-uk.co.uk for more).

The water industry and supply chain has the technological expertise to deliver high-quality watercourses and minimise energy demand. But it needs the right framework in place.

EIC’s Water Pollution Control Working Group will, therefore, continue to lobby for measures to encourage and help the water industry to ensure energy efficiency and carbon reduction is at the heart of all investment and procurement decisions in the future.

Merlin Hyman is director

of the EIC.

T: 020 7935 1675

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