A limitless supply of potable water no longer can be taken for granted by commercial and industrial water consumers, which can be unsettling for organizations where water is the lifeblood of their operations. Heavy water users, from power plants to oil and gas refineries, chemical plants, data centers and more are recognizing that they need to manage water differently. Business success, and even corporate survival, may depend on it.
The cultural transition is underway, with multiple forces driving it. Water is becoming more expensive (or accurately valued) as government subsidies related to water supply and treatment are being reduced, leaving consumers increasingly exposed to the true costs behind producing and maintaining that water supply.
Water scarcity is also a growing concern, with 58 percent of water industry professionals from the 2018 Strategic Directions: Water Report survey naming water supply/scarcity the most significant climate change issue for water utilities. This isn’t just an issue in arid regions, either. For example, along the U.S. gulf coast, river watersheds are becoming over-allocated from heavy use. Public perception is another factor – when a company consumes as much water as thousands or millions of residential users, they likely will come under scrutiny. Reducing their water footprint demonstrates that they are a good steward of resources in their community.
Thinking Differently About Water
For all the above reasons, companies across the nation are recognizing that they may not need pristine drinking water for their industrial processes. They are revisiting their operations, considering new approaches and looking for smarter ways to manage their water supply.
As an example, the data center industry consumes large quantities of water to cool their servers and other equipment. Reliability is essential, and potable water long has been viewed as the only way to provide it. But alternative cooling methods have emerged, including treated wastewater shown to provide acceptable quality. These initiatives are being replicated across water-intensive industries as companies look closely at newly available options.
Survey results reflect this increased awareness. Of nearly 200 professionals with an industrial operations or engineering/technical role, one-third consider water management and water/wastewater treatment a high priority for their organization that needs to be addressed immediately, while a broader 84 percent see it as important to their business (Figure 1). Survey respondents were from multiple sectors, including chemicals, manufacturing, and metals and mining, suggesting that interest in water reuse and alternative water supplies is pervasive.
Figure 1: How would you define the priority of water management and water/wastewater treatment for your organization?
Alternative Water Supply Sources
Survey results also suggest what types of alternative resources will be the focus of initial efforts. Sixty-two percent of respondents consider recycling and reusing wastewater within their facilities a viable option, while 47 percent see opportunities in using stormwater runoff (Figure 2). Both of these categories can be considered low-hanging fruit, involving process changes where water could be used more efficiently without a major capital investment. There also are areas under a company’s direct control, which simplifies implementation.
Figure 2: With regard to water supply, which alternative water supplies would you consider as viable options?
The second highest response is significant for other reasons. Nearly 60 percent of those surveyed believe treated municipal wastewater will be a viable option for their operations – as it is increasingly being seen as reliable, costeffective and sustainable.
With this new model, for instance, a utility will make treated wastewater available to its industrial customers at a purity level suitable for a company’s application. These are collaborative projects that not only benefit industrial users but also provide value for the utility and its residential customers. Not only is there more fresh water and drinking water to go around, utilities may be able to avoid costly capacity additions because using wastewater for heavy industrial applications greatly eases the demand for potable water.
These mutually beneficial collaborations are another area where Black & Veatch is providing assistance and expertise. For example, Koch Fertilizer, LLC, recently accepted the inaugural Oklahoma Water Resources Board “Water for 2060 Excellence Award” for a Black & Veatch designed water plant upgrade that is reducing its dependence on city potable water by more than four million gallons daily using treated water from the city’s wastewater treatment plant.
In northern California, a partnership between East Bay Municipal Utility District and Chevron is reducing the refinery’s demand for potable water by treating water for reuse to the level of purity required. And in Mankato, Minnesota, the city is partnering with Calpine Corporation to use treated wastewater effluent to cool the local power plant. Other collaboration projects are underway or planned.
Survey results also suggest that much of the work at this stage involves determining how to proceed – how to use water appropriately and the different options for water management at industrial facilities. Many organizations are interested in the expertise of an outside party that can provide these services, with nearly 60 percent of respondents stating their company would value a water supply and management assessment. A somewhat smaller number, 47 percent, would value water/wastewater treatment consulting and design, and still lower for building and operating — suggesting that most initiatives are in their initial stages (Figure 3).
A water supply and management assessment examines how a facility currently uses water and provides suggestions for practical conservation measures as well as the estimated savings from fit-for-purpose water management. An assessment also can help evaluate how water is managed, what water quality various operations require, what can be done differently, and the pros and cons of each option.
Figure 3: What type of third party services would your organization value in regards to water supply, water management, and water/ wastewater treatment?
Meeting the Water Challenge
Rising costs, limited supplies and relentless demand are forcing commercial and industrial users into new ways of thinking about water. While potable water has been the gold standard for industrial water users for generations, today’s challenges require a fit-for-purpose approach.
Making it work is more complex than simply turning on the tap, but it is essential when consumption is high and resources are finite. The first step is to determine what level of water purity is required for specific processes, and then make that water available in a way that is reliable, cost-effective and environmentally sustainable.
Companies also are recognizing that they no longer can be isolated from the needs of other water consumers, both industrial and residential. Industrial and commercial facilities increasingly are collaborating with public utilities and other partners in holistic solutions for water use that benefit all stakeholders.
With the right approach, it is possible to manage water effectively in today’s challenging environment – both as a good corporate citizen and a successful business.