A market expert shines a light on the bright spots and trouble spots for industrial water reuse, revealing who should consider the practice and why.
There's no doubt that water reuse is a trend on the rise, or that reclaimed water is integral for the future of water security. But technology rollouts, even of the trendy variety, can unfurl slowly. Municipalities and businesses won't make the leap to water reuse unless the case is compelling, and municipalities must also deal with lack of opportunity (new plant builds being few and far between), while pinning their hopes on a multitude of approvals. By contrast, the industrial sector has much more opportunity to dive right into water reuse — but are they compelled to do so?
I talked to Nate Maguire, Americas Business Unit Director at Xylem, to understand the drivers, opportunities, and trends in industrial water reuse, and what needs to be done to overcome the real and perceived obstacles holding back potential practitioners.
What are the main drivers for water reuse from an industrial perspective?
There seems to be much better awareness. Industrial users of water are really educating themselves on the true cost of water and the implications of that on them and their businesses.
One element that people are starting to look at is the embedded energy costs in water. It’s tremendously energy-intensive to not only get water out of the ground, but also to treat it, get it to your facility, and then to properly dispose of it by treating to effluent standards and discharging back into the environment.
There’s also an opportunity cost in water. As water starts to become increasingly scarce, relative to your demand, what are all the things you could do with that water? Companies that are in populous areas with limited supply are starting to be impacted by that.
There’s also the risk of water supply from a factor-of-input standpoint — looking at water as an ingredient to your process, and what happens when that ingredient is no longer available in the quantities you need.
And perhaps the last piece is social responsibility. All over the news you’re starting to see examples of where companies are coming under scrutiny for taking what is perceived as a disproportionate share of a community’s water supply. Those are just a few of the embedded risks within water.
As companies start understanding what the risks are, they start to recognize the true value of water and they start to look at investments that would help to mitigate some of those risks much differently than they had in the past.
Historically, from a hard ROI [return on investment] calculation, water reuse doesn’t always look attractive. But when you start peeling back that onion and looking at the true cost of water, in many cases water reuse becomes a much, much more attractive option.
How do you convince hesitant, would-be adopters of the value of reuse?
I think the conversation would probably have to start with a simple mapping of their operation and really looking at where the water is used, how much is used, and the quality levels required for the uses of water within and around their facility.
Then, I think you have to look externally as well, and understand what your risks of water supply are. It is crucial to understand and empathize with the community that you’re operating in and the concerns they may have with regards to water and to your business, and look at it in a multifaceted way.
In the past, a lot of these decisions were made purely on just hard financial calculations, which didn’t contemplate all the other elements of business and business value.
I think you start there. How much do you need to lower your risk of water supply? How much do you need to address these other areas that you’ve identified in your research or your analysis?
The other important piece is that you want to fight the perception that there’s a ‘one size fits all’ water reuse solution. The reality is that, across any facility, there are a variety of water requirements, many of them at very different water quality levels and volume requirement levels.
There are many different types of treatment and treatment trains, at obviously very different levels of investment. The concept of ‘fit for purpose’ is a very important element in this discussion. What are your needs? What are you trying to accomplish? Once those questions are answered, the conversation about an investment profile is appropriate.
What industries can benefit the most from tapping into water reuse?
There are a couple that have a lot of potential, to the extent that water requirements are extremely high — food and beverage and the energy sector. Oil and gas, in particular, requires a tremendous amount of water and treatment, including pretreatment and wastewater treatment, etc., in their processes.
If you look at potential, it’s actually pretty diverse across a lot of industries. Food and beverage and oil and gas are probably a couple of the heavy hitters, but within the industrial space there are many, many different subsectors and niche markets. Producers need water, whether it’s for heating and cooling, as an ingredient in this thing they’re making, as a component in processing, or for potable purposes for employees. There’s water embedded in practically everything that we buy and consume.
Reuse obviously isn’t suitable for everybody; there has to be a certain scale and the economics have to work, but there’s a tremendously diverse space out there that is already starting to adopt water reuse — and the potential is much, much higher.
What obstacles could slow the rate of adoption, and how are they surmounted?
First and foremost, regulations and policies need to catch up. A lot of our policies — in the U.S., in particular, but elsewhere as well — were written many years ago and need to be updated in a consistent way that reflects the current water crisis that we’re facing, while also contemplating the technologies of today. We’ve made significant advances in the way we can treat and test water and wastewater.
There are absolutely some new and very efficient regulations that have come out more recently, but if you step back and look at the regulations that are relevant to or that guide water reuse in particular, it’s really a patchwork — there are some holes, some inconsistencies across different states, and so on. I think one action item that needs to happen, and is starting to happen slowly, is an update to our policy and our regulation framework to help speed up the adoption and to really clarify what’s expected and what needs to be done.
For example, with the NPDES [National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System], which is a division of the [U.S.] EPA, you would want to see additional water and wastewater reuse provisions applied specifically to wastewater reuse for industrial facilities. Having something that crosses all 50 states, creates a regulatory framework, and clarifies definitions would be a very good thing for industrial wastewater reuse.
What are the factors or industry trends that might hasten the growth of water reuse?
One [is] data management, enabled by the proliferation of sensors and new sensor technology. The ability to track and manage data on the effectiveness of your treatment systems, how well they’re performing and at what quality levels, and really helping organizations build tracking and measurement into their treatment systems is probably going to be one of the sub-areas or growth pieces of water reuse.
There’s also a lot more discussion around decentralized systems, and this concept is playing out in certain small communities around the U.S. and around the world. One thing that we’re starting to see happen out here in California — and it’s happening elsewhere, too — is industrial users of water seeking out more treated wastewater instead of just direct, basically potable, water supply from the municipalities. There have been examples where a wastewater facility happens to be located pretty closely to an industrial plant and their water requirements are such that they would like to lower their investment to procure water; meanwhile, the wastewater treatment facility is happy to begin conversations with industrial users to help put their effluent to good use. The conversation on water reuse is growing and the industry is getting smarter in how they evaluate water reuse investments. Does it necessarily mean decentralized? I don’t know that it does in all cases, but certainly there’s some trend there.