Water circularity: Extending the benefits above and beyond

Our precious water resources need to be protected and preserved right now, says Alain Dedieu, President Water Wastewater at Schneider Electric.

According to the United Nations, due to economic advancement, population growth, and consumption patterns, the world’s water use has increased sixfold over the past 100 years, expanding at a pace of 1% per year. Water supply is also impacted by climate change, but ironically, water production considerably increases carbon emissions.

The water and wastewater sector is essential to meeting the world’s rising water demands and to the achievement of the 2050 net zero journey. This is where circular economy principles become vital to achieving a sustainable water supply.

The concept of a circular economy is about closing the loops of the linear economy to optimise resources. The emergence of new water technology has brought about a new age where the performance of water services must be seen through the lens of sustainability and efficiency. These objectives can be understood through the paradigm of circularity, where Reduce, Reuse and Recycle become fundamental pillars of sustainable and efficient production.

Tightening the tap on saving energy

When energy is used inefficiently, the costs to the economy and the environment increase. The necessity for energy efficiency measures and self-generation of renewable energy are just two of the crucial steps that the water industry must take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as is stated in The World Bank’s 2021 study, “Water in Circular Economy and Resilience” (WICER).

With energy accounting for 33% to 82% of non-labour operating costs, it is frequently the most expensive part of water supply and sanitation operations. However, it is also one of the expenditures that can be most easily addressed through innovative efficiency measures, not least by introducing digital solutions that can optimise, manage and conserve energy. As DigitalEurope highlights, “Digital remains the single most important tool to deliver substantial environmental gains through increased efficiencies.”

Water companies increasingly turn to remote monitoring and real-time data analysis to aid energy optimisation and reduce consumption. Through enhanced analytics, powered by IoT sensors and the cloud, water companies can collect and read vast amounts of data in real-time. Such advanced data analytics and power monitoring systems can deliver energy savings of up to 8%.

Not only does this support the overall measurement of consumption, but it helps to forecast usage. This data can also feed into leak management systems to detect faults and proactively mitigate leaks, managing inspection and repair.

The WICER report is clear that digitisation underpins efficiency and sustainability in the water industry: “Digital solutions offer new ways to optimise, manage, and conserve water. Digital solutions also help extend and improve the quality of water resources, expand infrastructure life cycles, optimise operations and maintenance, increase energy efficiency, reduce NRW, and help prepare for a changing environment or potential crisis.”

Reducing energy consumption across the water cycle is essential. Whether tackling inefficient pumping systems or ensuring preventative maintenance, all efficiency measures require data to feed insight that spurs action. Without a full view of current inefficiencies, it is impossible to bring about impactful change. Therefore, efficiency and, in turn, sustainability now relies on data delivered through digital technologies. But it doesn’t end there.

A large-scale renewable energy source

Beyond boosting energy efficiency, circularity can help us create a greener future for water. Being circular means using the industry’s potential to produce renewable energy and run-on alternate energy sources produced during the hydrological cycle.

Utility companies that provide water and sanitation are increasingly looking for ways to become energy producers. With the right planning and investments, these utilities can achieve energy neutrality or even generate a surplus of energy to sell to the grid. This can look like microgrids at desalination or water treatment plants, to wastewater treatment plants utilising biogas, thermal energy via heat pumps or microturbines deployed in the water system to capture kinetic energy.

This approach has many benefits, including decreased emissions and improved stability. By producing their own energy, utilities can become less reliant on the grid and more resilient in the face of power outages. Alongside the implementation of digital tools, self-generated, renewable energy creates a winning cycle of efficiency and sustainability.

The sky isn’t the limit

For waste materials produced during industrial processes to become an asset rather than a harmful burden, circularity finds useful ways to harness them. Globally, the majority of water treatment sludge is discarded to water bodies, sewers, or landfills, which can create damage to ecosystems.

However, adopting a ‘zero-waste’ strategy means materials that may otherwise end up in landfill can be recovered from the sludge treatment and used in other industries such as construction or agriculture. Salt can be extracted from the brine at desalination plants and then used in other industries, such as the resource-heavy textile industry.

Such an approach is not without challenges but is vital to ensure that true efficiency and sustainability is achieved through the water cycle. Reducing energy use is imperative, but if other opportunities to engage in circularity are ignored, there is a risk of giving with one hand and taking with another.

A faultless circle

True circularity in the water sector provides environmental benefits, as well as social and economic ones. It’s a strategy that combines numerous chances to operate more effectively, sustainably, and cooperatively with other industries pursuing ambitious change.

Water should serve as a shining example of the circular economy. Water, which is a cyclical but limited resource that needs to be protected and preserved right now, supports every single part of our world. Adopting a circular economy for water allows us to maximise its worth, while also generating new value for businesses, communities, and the ecosystem.

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