Speaking on the state of the challenging water/wastewater treatment market — hampered in recent years by slow municipal growth — Heiner Markhoff, a leading voice in the water treatment technology market, sees “light at the end of the tunnel.” Find out why in this exclusive Q&A with Water Online.
I recently had the opportunity to share time with Heiner Markhoff at a ribbon-cutting ceremony in suburban Philadelphia, where GE’s Water & Process Technologies, headquartered in Trevose, PA, donated a computer center to the local YWCA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping women and children in crisis. It was one of many charitable ventures for GE Water & Process Technologies, but my talk with Markhoff centered on water and wastewater issues — which, in some respects, could also be classified as matters of crisis. We discussed the state of the water treatment technology market, trends within the municipal and industrial sectors, and the drivers that will propel the water/wastewater industry forward.
At a high level, how would you describe GE Water’s core focus and capabilities?
A lot of our effort is focused on water reuse and what we call “tough to treat” water. How can we treat this water and reuse it to help solve water scarcity? How do we improve energy efficiency of all water treatment technologies?
We’re a fully self-sustained business within GE, focused entirely on water, wastewater, and process solutions. We have about 7,500 people around the world operating in more than 100 countries, and all we do is water and process. A lot of our effort is also focused on remote monitoring and diagnostics and advanced analytics. We also have about 18,000 customer assets online that we monitor from our center in Trevose to improve our customers’ productivity and provide asset protection.
How much of that focus is devoted to R&D?
It's significant. I can't spell it out, but it's very important. It’s not just your basic R&D, but also application-based technology development — different setups and mechanical systems to improve energy efficiency. In membrane treatment, for example, our LEAPmbr provides a big step forward in efficiency. It has less space requirements, making membrane technology more competitive. [For more on LEAPmbr, watch the following video.]
Will membranes and reverse osmosis (RO) continue to be the best available technologies for “tough to treat” water, particularly for water reuse and desalination applications? They have been criticized for being energy-intensive as compared to some emerging technologies.
Membrane technology certainly has its place. On the desalination side, it's replacing MED (multiple-effect distillation) and general evaporation technologies. It's still energy intensive, however. There are other methods — forward osmosis or membrane distillation — that are more energy efficient; at the same time, we've developed advanced treatment technologies that drive more energy efficiencies.
In RO, there are certain mechanical solutions that we're working on. We developed a hybrid system that improves energy efficiency by 10 percent for desalination operations. It’s an integrated pump and energy recovery (IPER) system.
A lot of the [competing] technologies are still in the early stage, and the adoption rate of new technologies in the water space is relatively slow — a snail’s pace, so to speak. We have to continue to push innovation forward — and we’re involved with some of those technologies — but I think today they’re not really ready, from a utility perspective. Today, we have to look at existing membrane technologies and work on driving improvements that take them to the next level. Our goal is to move towards energy neutral wastewater treatment.
What are the keys and obstacles to getting newer technologies accepted and installed at municipal facilities?
The slow adoption of technology is related to the huge responsibilities of municipal utilities, including the regulatory framework they’re operating under. I think what always helps are pilot plants and those players who are more open to provide testing beds for new technologies. When you develop something new, nobody's going to take it right away. You have to pilot it for a period of time, show the results, discuss the results, scale it up, etc. Compared to other industries, it's a rather slow adoption.
How do you perceive the pace of adoption for potable reuse schemes in the U.S.? Will persistent drought be a tipping point for public acceptance?
It's a difficult topic, at least with regard to direct potable reuse (DPR). It's a different discussion if we reuse the water by injecting it into an aquifer or reservoir, which would be indirect potable reuse (IPR), and I think that's the more realistic way of driving technology adoption faster.
At the end of the day it's being done. You treat wastewater, feed it into a river, and down the river is the next drinking water plant, which takes it back out of the river.
You can do DPR — the technology is available — but you see even in Singapore, a world leader in water reuse, it’s still mostly IPR.
Another controversial topic is hydraulic fracturing. What are your thoughts on “fracking” for shale gas and the environmental concerns that surround it? Can proper water treatment end the debate?
It's a very intense discussion between two sides — environmentalists and industry — and I don't know whether it's possible to find a way in the middle. There's so much potential, and production is continuing to progress. I think it's much more a question of regulation and the economics of treating the water versus trucking disposal or deep well injection.
But we’re confident in the treatment technologies available and, for the U.S., it's a great resource that will put the country on a long-term growth path. GE is committed to meeting the needs of this industry and has and continues to develop technologies that minimize the use of water needed for production.
What are the main drivers that will push water reuse forward in the oil and gas industry?
The main driver is water scarcity, because a lot of the oil production occurs in fairly arid areas. That's where our technology comes into play. Second is water pricing, or cost of water — the topic that everything comes back to in the water industry. The potential incentives and benefits of reuse are another driving force, especially as it becomes more economically viable to treat it rather than truck it. The fourth driver is [government] regulation. GE Water doesn’t favor less or more regulation, but I always think a clear regulatory framework makes it easier for companies to do business, rather than having a lot of speculation and uncertainty.
The municipal market has been stifled in recent years by the slow economy and lack of funds. What’s your take on the market going forward?
I think there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel. That's based on the latest activities in the market; there's a lot of bidding activity and discussions that are ongoing. I think we might get out of the trough here, on the U.S. municipal market. We're cautiously optimistic. It's not going to be pie in the sky, but I think it'll be steady growth and the market will come back.