From The Editor | September 8, 2023

Racing Towards Sustainability


By Kevin Westerling,

As water and wastewater utilities come to grips with decarbonization, many have set ambitious targets to achieve greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goals. Global water technology company Xylem works closely with utilities to help them achieve these goals. To evaluate progress across the industry, the company commissioned a survey of 100 utilities across North America and Europe.

I spoke with Austin Alexander, Xylem’s VP of Sustainability and Social Impact, to break down the results and key trends driving a greener water industry.

What proportion of utilities are setting GHG reduction and net zero emissions goals?

Austin Alexander
In 2022, GWI reported that 81 water and wastewater utilities had set net zero, carbon, and climate neutrality targets, serving over 230 million people. Of these, 26 utilities, serving over 72 million people, had joined the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) Race to Zero campaign.

This tallies with the results of our recent survey. Out of 100 participating utilities, 48% had a net-zero emissions goal and 42% had an emissions reduction goal. Of the utilities that did not have a GHG goal, nearly half of these were planning to implement one in the next five years.

If you conducted the same survey five years ago, you would have quite different results. Few utilities spoke about decarbonization at the same level. The data shows how far the water industry has come.

What does that path look like for utilities?

Our white paper, Net Zero – The Race We All Win, outlines a detailed road map for optimizing operations. This includes setting targets, embedding net-zero strategies into capital planning, and transforming from treatment to resource recovery.

Before getting into the practical steps of implementing technology, getting a baseline data set that can inform a realistic goal is important. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Many companies, including Xylem, already have publicly disclosed targets and have leveraged resources and organizations like the Science Based Targets initiative to get there.

While targets are a key step, they won’t reduce emissions. Efficient technologies — together with changes in process, policy, and practice — will. A lot of the technology we need to decarbonize already exists and is relatively easy to leverage. This can help utilities find the low-hanging fruit that can be addressed with cost-neutral, or even cost-saving, solutions.

We advocate for taking a long hard look at the root cause of inefficiencies across a network. Solving those operational efficiencies will reap a return for the climate and for their bottom line.

What is the sentiment around GHG reduction within the water sector?

Utilities around the world are on the front lines of the impacts of climate change, from drought to floods, all while providing a critical resource.

In our survey, we found that most utilities list climate change among their top three challenges. They are feeling the impact. Key stakeholders, such as municipal governments and local communities, can see the impact of climate change on clean drinking water and sanitation.

However, utilities are also under a lot of cost pressures, which can make them hesitant to invest resources in decarbonization until the benefits to their operations, customers, and business are completely clear.

It is on us to make the case that reducing emissions can be done in a way that is cost-effective and affordable.

For instance, a lot of utilities cite resilience to extreme storms and floods as a major concern. In Buffalo Sewer Authority (BSA), U.S., we can see how it addressed that challenge by using advanced digital solutions to help water managers improve operational and environmental outcomes at an affordable cost.

BSA saved $145 million by deploying a smart sewer system that reduced polluted water flowing into its rivers during storm events. The utility is a great example of being innovative to bridge resource gaps, efficiently serve the community, and save a significant amount of embedded carbon while being more prepared for climate change.

What are the drivers for net zero, and how do they differ across geographies?

Approaches to decarbonization are certainly influenced by the different local drivers.

We recently released Solving Water in Rural America: A Xylem Report, which showed that access to safe and reliable water is not guaranteed for more than 2 million Americans.

The report presents the full scope of the rural water crisis, outlining the regional, regulatory, and environmental factors that have contributed to these water challenges, as well as the practical steps individuals, government bodies, and organizations can take to address this crisis. These challenges and cost pressures are the backdrops that utilities work against as they make decisions on how to decarbonize.

Regulation is also a major driver, sometimes in promoting efficiencies but often directly through sustainability regulations. In Europe, regulation on decarbonization is quite evolved, both regionally and locally, which is encouraging utilities to step up and become sustainability leaders.

What solutions are utilities embracing to reach their GHG goals?

We have seen many utilities embracing solutions that are cost-effective, streamline their operations, and are available today.

Xylem research previously found that 50% of energy-related emissions from the wastewater sector can be abated with existing technologies. Things like intelligent wastewater pumping systems, adaptive mixers with variable speed drives, and real-time decision support systems are solutions already in play around the world; but the really striking figure was that about 95% of this impact is achievable at zero or negative cost.

Xylem recently launched its 2022 sustainability report. What are the key takeaways, trends, or surprises from the report?

We believe water can lead the global conversation — and more importantly action — on climate mitigation, with real, meaningful GHG-reduction commitments across the sector.

This starts with us. We are currently finalizing our Science Based Targets and have committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 while hitting more immediate, interim targets.

To practice what we preach, we’re looking across our entire operation and value chain. From our facility’s energy use, where we reduced net Scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions by 21% year-on-year, to our supply chain, where we’ve partnered with more than 30% of our global supply base to begin reporting on key sustainability metrics with third parties.

We have also taken steps to align our sustainability, operational, and financing strategies across our value chain, most recently in a five-year $1 billion revolving credit facility directly tied to our Scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions.

While we’re committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 across our entire value chain, this isn’t just about our own emission profile. We have a role in influencing the conversation to reduce emissions and facilitating the adoption of technology that can move the sector to net zero.