When thinking about climate change, there is a tendency to think that some future technology will save us. New research from Xylem, however, shows that the global wastewater industry can cut its electricity-related greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent using technology that is available today. 95 percent of these reductions will either cost nothing or will actually save money.
Xylem’s big idea actually comes from a small place – a research pilot plant at the Hammarby Sjöstadsverk R&D facility in Stockholm, Sweden. Xylem began a pilot study there three years ago, working with IVL, the Swedish Environmental Research Institute, to investigate new technologies and concepts in wastewater treatment.
“One of our goals was to understand the environmental impact of wastewater treatment technology over its entire lifecycle,” says Aleksandra Lazic, Senior Process Engineer, R&D Treatment at Xylem. “We also wanted to get a complete lifecycle cost analysis for an entire treatment plant, including capital investment and operating expenses. So after working with IVL to confirm effluent quality and optimize performance, we actually performed lifecycle cost analyses at three full-scale plants.”
The research found that the biggest factor in a wastewater treatment plant’s operating expenses and carbon footprint was energy consumption. By using currently available energy-efficient technology these plants could lower costs and reduce emissions.
Testing it on a global scale
Then Xylem’s researchers had another idea: What if every wastewater treatment plant in the world made these changes?
“After we collected all of this information, along with our understanding of the environmental and economic aspects of each treatment process, we wanted to take a step back and look at it from a higher level,” Lazic says. “How can we use this information to influence decision makers? Would these changes really work everywhere?”
Xylem selected three regions, the US, Europe and China, to test whether the results of their study would hold up on a larger scale. Over the course of a year, researchers studied the wastewater sectors in these regions to assess 18 distinct abatement opportunities – from pumps used to transport the water to the blowers used to aerate it.
The result: $40 billion in savings
The research found that nearly half of the electricity-related emissions in wastewater management could be abated at a negative or neutral cost. This means that wastewater plants could annually cut 44 million metric tons of CO2 emissions by making smart investments in technologies that will ultimately pay for themselves or actually drive additional savings.
The greatest investment return and emissions abatement opportunities were found in China, where 100 percent of the emissions abatement opportunities analyzed could be realized at zero or negative cost. In this region, where the government is actively investing in water infrastructure, more than $25 billion in net savings can be generated across the life of the equipment with the adoption of high-efficiency wastewater technologies. With the addition of the United States and Europe, the savings top $40 billion, which could in turn be the capital used to make the much needed upgrades to our existing water infrastructure.
“At the global climate policy level, this is an example of how an industry can lead the way in significantly reducing emissions with smart investments that ultimately pay for themselves,” says Randolf Webb, Senior Analyst, Strategy and Business Development at Xylem. Webb helped prepare Xylem’s report on the research findings: Powering the Wastewater Renaissance.
“Our next step is to use this study to encourage new partnerships with a variety of organizations to further explore key areas of the global study, such as the opportunity in China and the financial barriers to adopting these technologies,” Webb says.
To accelerate the adoption of highly efficient wastewater technologies, the report recommends new financing models that incentivize investments in low-carbon technologies, and recommends increasing the energy efficiency standards of wastewater equipment.
Download the full report or an executive summary here: