The coronavirus pandemic has raised the significance of social factors in the present and environmental factors in the long-term. The water industry, dealing with a finite and irreplaceable resource that is at the core of sustainable development must now, more than ever, focus on lasting sustainability.
Schneider Electric, the world’s most sustainable company, according to Corporate Knights 2021 Global 100 ranking, has made it a priority to double down on its long-standing strategy to embed environmental, social and governance considerations into every facet of its activities, as well as to assist its customers in achieving their own sustainability goals. Valerie Houchin, Sales Team Leader, Energy & Sustainability Services at Schneider Electric, explains in this interview how the firm is guiding the water sector in this respect.
Could you tell us briefly about your career path and your current role in Schneider Electric?
I was recruited to work for Schneider Electric’s Energy and Sustainability (ESS) division after graduating from college at Texas Christian University over twenty years ago. Energy and sustainability sound a lot different now than they did then. We have the opportunity to serve clients to buy and use energy smarter, drive sustainable growth, and build projects that improve performance. In my career, I have served public sector clients in the Energy Services Company (ESCO)/Design-Build group of Energy and Sustainability Services as an account executive in various geographies and public sector markets. In 2015, I felt the water and wastewater sector was a niche market that could benefit from our delivery method and collaborative approach to building projects. So, I jumped in feet first and haven’t looked back. As an executive account manager dedicated to the water and wastewater sector, I find joy in serving my clients every day, love seeing projects being built and value the long-term relationships and friendships I have formed over the years.
The UN describes the concept of a sustainable water sector as going beyond that of just water infrastructure sustainability. How does Schneider Electric help the water sector become more sustainable?
I was recently involved in a global team project around the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and it was really interesting to learn more about how Schneider Electric is committed to the advancement of the UN SDGs. We developed 21 initiatives to support the UN SDGs and have been reporting progress over the last 15 years.
We developed 21 initiatives to support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and have been reporting progress over the last 15 years
As it relates to the water sector, we are most positively impacting SDG Goals, specifically SDG6 related to Clean Water and Sanitation, SDG9 related to industry, innovation and infrastructure and SDG11 related to sustainable cities and communities. We partner with our water customers in their digital transformation to help them reach their resilience and sustainability goals. Schneider Electric helps improve water and energy conservation by partnering with leading water companies to combine innovative digital technology with operation expertise, we enable the digital operation and digital assets with our end-to-end digital modeling platform, and we contribute to resource circularity by leveraging cloud technology for enterprise-level integrated operations.
And how is the Sustainability division that you are a part of contributing to the support that is provided to customers?
One of the reasons I love my job in the ESCO/Design-Build group is that I have a direct role in my client’s sustainability strategy, implementation and measuring the results. It really is a long-term partnership as it involves truly listening and understanding the unique situations, needs and goals of my clients. Some of my clients have a solid plan in place but may currently be resource-strapped to get their projects off the ground. Or perhaps they need help to prioritize projects and to bundle them in logical phases to be built. And sometimes they need help with justifying the ROI and coming up with funding sources to pay for the improvements. We meet our clients exactly where they are. Then it’s my job to guide and facilitate decision making over a period of months or years to define the energy and sustainability-related water infrastructure project we can build with success and meet the outcomes the client is wishing to achieve.
We partner with our water customers in their digital transformation to help them reach their resilience and sustainability goals
To what extent has the pandemic affected the perception of sustainability-driven projects in the water industry?
In the ESCO/design-build division that I am a part of, our clients have continued forward with sustainability-driven projects in the pandemic, whether in the planning, design or construction phases. The pandemic has only strengthened the need for these types of projects to come to fruition as other revenue sources in their agencies may be strained. Many of my clients are also addressing aging infrastructure in our projects and since the water sector has 24-7 operations, maintaining their assets and continuing these essential services to their constituents is paramount. Completing these projects and having a good news story to share with stakeholders along with measurable key performance indicators is essential for advancing these types of projects in the future.
The water sector consumes about 4% of electricity worldwide. How does Schneider Electric help water utilities and companies reduce their energy consumption?
Helping our customers manage their energy needs in a sustainable way is a huge step towards sustainability in water. Schneider helps water utilities and companies in a number of ways. First, the saying is true, you can’t manage what you can’t measure. There are many ways we help bring visibility to energy consumption through SCADA, power metering and Schneider’s energy management software, EcoStruxure Resource Advisor. Our design-build energy services group brings important projects into construction with measurable energy savings and designed with long-term energy and operational savings from the start. From a product and software perspective, we help clients manage their operations and reduce energy consumption with plant and network automation, integrated information management, energy-saving variable speed drives and control systems.
Schneider has implemented energy and sustainability projects across the globe, committing to save $2.7B in energy over the next 20 years
Could you mention some examples where Schneider Electric has helped the water industry reduce its energy consumption and become more sustainable?
Schneider has implemented energy and sustainability projects across the globe, and we have committed to our current customers to save $2.7 billion in energy over the next 20 years. Our design-build/ESCO (Energy Service Company) team has direct experience in building projects for agencies and cities and following up the construction with measurement and verification of energy savings which is beneficial to demonstrating ROI and long-term cost reductions. For example, the City of El Centro, CA worked with Schneider to design and build several energy and capital improvements at the city’s wastewater treatment plant, yielding a 44% reduction in energy usage in the aeration process, enabling the City to receive a $1.6 million grant to help fund the project. The City of Lakeland, FL received recognition as a 2019 EPA Pisces Program Award Nominee. This unique project encompasses both process-related capital improvements, as well as, the installation of a combined heat and power (CHP) system that will capture and condition previously flared biogas from the plant's anaerobic digesters and use it to power a 400-kW generator which offsets the treatment facility's electricity needs by more than 41% and creates a pathway for future expansion to further reduce the facility's power demand.
Do you think water organizations are increasingly bringing climate action to the forefront of their corporate agendas? And if so, how?
Absolutely. Many corporations, water agencies and cities have adopted or are adopting formal climate action plans and holding themselves accountable through regular reporting and performance measurement. Since 2008, my career has been focused in California where AB 32, California’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act was passed in 2006. In my presentations to water agencies, cities and boards of directors, one aspect of our design-build projects that is always highlighted by the C-suite is the environmental impact resulting from our project and how this helps their organization move the needle on their climate action plan goals. This is especially true in cities where wastewater plants represent the highest energy and carbon footprint, so having a quantifiable carbon reduction is a huge benefit.
It is a long-term partnership as it involves truly listening and understanding the unique situations, needs and goals of my clients
We understand that our clients are looking for trusted partners to help them define a sustainability strategy, measure progress towards their goals and deliver on their commitments. By listening to our clients, we continue to develop more services to help them reach their goals.
Working in the energy and sustainability sector, do you foresee a tendency towards green careers in general, and if so, to what extent?
Yes, I do. Having worked in Schneider’s Energy and Sustainability Division for over 20 years, I have had the pleasure of having a green career. With the rising importance and awareness of climate neutrality, carbon emission reductions and the water-energy nexus, green is becoming a way of life, not just a movement. Having participated in several water conferences over the years, a hot topic facing water agencies is looking to millennials to lead these organizations as baby boomers move into retirement. We at Schneider Electric actively hire college graduates for various positions and are in our 11th year of hosting a global student competition called Go Green.