As the race to net zero gathers pace, how can water utilities rise to the challenge of lower emissions? It is a timely topic, particularly as global events like COP27 put more attention on the decarbonization of the water sector.
That challenge is one we address in Net Zero: The Race We All Win, a new paper from Xylem. It outlines the practical approaches utilities can take to cut greenhouse gas emissions quickly while optimizing services for their communities.
Why should net zero be a priority for the water sector?
We can all feel the impacts of climate change. In Europe, temperatures have increased at more than twice the global average in the last 30 years – according to a report from the World Meteorological Organization – leading to droughts, heatwaves, and wildfires. The crisis is not only causing water scarcity. Historic flooding has had devastating impacts recently in Europe, China, and Pakistan.
As these issues affect the prosperity of communities and businesses, they also present a compelling case to modernize our water systems and make our sector more efficient and resilient.
While water utilities are on the frontlines in dealing with the impact of climate change, we cannot forget that water systems are also energy intensive. Water and wastewater infrastructure make up about 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions – similar to the shipping industry. This link is often referred to as the “water-energy nexus” and unleashing its potential can drive substantial energy savings to repower Europe while drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Now, what do we do about it? Net Zero: The Race We All Win, spotlights real-world strategies that utilities can use to reduce emissions quickly and affordably.
The case studies highlighted in the paper remind us that we do not need a quantum leap in technology. Much of what we need to manage water more efficiently and hit the “sweet spot” of both making us more resilient and lowering our emissions already exists.
As of April 2022, Global Water Intelligence has counted more than 80 water and wastewater utilities with explicit net-zero and climate neutrality targets. Of these, 26 have joined the United Nations Race to Zero. Many other utilities work closely with their communities and governments to achieve net-zero targets. So, work is well underway – but time is also of the essence.
What can the sector do to move faster?
As industries think about decarbonizing effectively, water should take the lead and show what is possible through technology and data-driven decision-making. The sector can be a powerful example for other industries looking to pick up the pace in the race to net zero.
Prioritizing emissions reduction does not mean a fundamental shift in how utilities do business. Our previous research found that around half the wastewater sector's energy-related emissions can be abated with existing technologies – think intelligent wastewater pumping systems, adaptive mixers with variable speed drives, and real-time decision support systems. Another striking finding was that about 95 percent of this impact is achievable at zero or negative cost.
Together with our customers, we have implemented the use of digital technologies – like digital twins – to help optimize operations, resulting in significant drops in energy consumption. In one case, a European utility reduced aeration energy use by 30 percent. Other innovative approaches explored in the paper include remote, real-time monitoring, intelligent pump stations, and generating renewable power from waste.
How can utilities reach net zero while continuing to serve communities?
While climate considerations should become a significant driver of decision-making, the reality is that this priority can be lost among other challenges like aging networks, shrinking fresh water supplies, evolving regulations, and tightening budgets.
We are at an intersection of growing infrastructure challenges and climate pressure, and utilities need support – the onus can’t just be on them. The broader ecosystem of stakeholders – politicians, regulators, finance partners, and technology partners – needs to help remove hurdles and support rapid adoption. The term net zero can feel daunting, but we have the tools to hand to get underway.