We are faced with a global challenge that is intergral to our survival on this planet.
Delivering water and energy services is fundamental to human activities. But the businesses, public services and industry of tomorrow will need to function in a world with less water and more people.
To achieve this, all elements of water infrastructure need to be managed and optimised for greater efficiency. We must maintain water supplies, recycle water more efficiently, control costs and reduce energy usage and carbon emissions.
From climate change and water scarcity, to robotics, regulation and circular economies, the water industry of 2027 will be very different to today.
The water sector is at the forefront of climate change. Rising temperatures, more intense and unpredictable rainfall and sea level rises are widely accepted as the increasingly common scenario. But water companies will also be exposed to more subtle impacts like saline intrusion into groundwater sources, changes to peak demand and lower dilution of discharges to watercourses during drought.
All of this will require higher levels of treatment and the associated extra energy use. Homes use approximately 33% of their water to flush toilets and run washing machines. Similarly for commercial developments, approximately 60% of the water demand is for non-potable purposes. To better protect potable water supplies, non-potable water supply could be increased to balance supply and demand. Non-potable water can originate from rainwater from buildings’ roofs, stormwater from pedestrianised surfaces and road runoffs, greywater from baths, showers and sinks and blackwater from municipal and industrial wastewater.
The water sector needs to be ready to adapt to climate change in the long term but also to mitigate against temperature rises now. Guarding against water lost through leakage will be key to efficiency and the technologies to detect and predict leakages can already reduce losses from as much as 40% to below 4%.
While the climate is changing, the world’s population is growing – in the UK it is expected there will be 10 million more people living here in 20 years’ time. This places even greater pressure on water supplies.
By 2027 the Internet of Things will play a significant role in the water industry. Data capture, smart networks and intelligent automated systems will enable unprecedented optimisation with predictive analytics able to balance systems, reduce losses and manage water delivery and associated services. There will be greater opportunities to monitor asset health, prevent failures and automatically order parts in line with just-in-time logistics.
Integrating data from a wide range of sensors located in different parts of the water and sewerage networks will offer new insights into how these complex systems work and interact. This new knowledge can be used to drive further operational efficiencies.
This equates to dramatic savings not only in water, but also carbon and costs, building the resilience of the water network to drought and climate-change challenges. Low cost sensors could also be used to measure the quality of surface water or to aid network maintenance by predicting faults before they happen.
The roll-out of metered water will help preserve supplies – industry trials have shown that metered customers generally use 12% less water than those who are unmetered. This, coupled with greater awareness, will reduce demand – a situation mirrored by the increasingly effective adoption of waste recycling over the last decade.
Automation, robotics and technology will have an impact on the water workforce, with less demand for manual roles but a potentially increased call for high-skilled, tech-savvy staff. Advanced materials and narrowing gaps in labour costs due to automation will create further demand for innovation that will lead to new business models and big leaps in technology.
The water industry is the fourth most energy-intensive industry in the UK, using approximately 3% of UK generated electricity for pumping, water treatment and waste management. It is responsible for around 1% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. The challenge for 2027 will be to move towards energy self-sufficiency, cut carbon and exploit all the opportunities for customer-controlled energy.
Harnessing the potential of seven million tonnes of human waste each year will become a vital strategy to meeting these challenges. Anaerobic Digestion (AD) and Combined Heat and Power (CHP) technology is advancing rapidly, with gas cleaning systems, lean-burn engine-based CHPs and thermal hydrolysis already creating the potential to double renewable generation capacity by 1,697 gigawatt hours – enough to power half a million homes.
Low-energy devices, controls and the use of consumption data will enable the industry to cut water consumption. At the same time, innovations like the recovery of low-grade heat from sewers could become a source of additional revenue.
Renewable energy from biogas will help drive the industry towards genuine carbon neutrality and energy self-sufficiency. As populations grow, more sludge will be available and this in turn will allow expansion in the ability to capture renewable biogas and generate renewable electricity.
As treatment processes are further optimised and AD and CHP technology advances, the opportunity for greater energy self sufficiency and renewable energy export will rise. This would be further increased if any spare (headroom) capacity could be used for the co-digestion of energy crops or other liquid organic wastes.
To lower energy demand and use optimised energy management, based on implementation of low energy devices, controls and the use of consumption data will enable the industry to make a step change in reducing demand side consumption.
Innovations like recovery of low grade heat from the sewer and nutrient recovery will be adopted more widely and create additional revenues in the future and boost sustainability.
With advances in technology, it is realistic that new materials will help drive the water networks of the future. Take graphene – a hydrophobic carbon layer used in coatings. It can enable companies to switch to more energy-efficient filtering at low cost and even has the potential to turn seawater into drinking water.
New materials and innovative applications will advance microfiltration, ultrafiltration, reverse osmosis and nanofiltration. Some of the latest advances use titanium dioxide anotechnology instead of the usual polymer-based water filtration membranes. This kills bacteria and reduces biofouling or the accumulation of microorganisms. In another development, acoustically driven nanotubes can push contaminants away from water molecules and there is growing interest in photocatalytic technology using ultraviolet rays to clean water.
The use of biological systems will also grow to include use of the aquatic organism Euglena to absorb pollutants. Together the growing adoption of this approach will increase our ability to clean water and so make better use of water resources.
A stable and predictable regulatory and business environment has enabled water companies to raise long- term finance to deliver benefits to customers and the environment at an affordable price. However, Brexit will have an impact on the level and direction of regulation, affecting water-sector procurement, employment and tariffs on goods and services.
Therefore the development of a clear, long-term policy framework is essential for companies looking to progressively invest in low carbon technologies. This will encourage businesses to focus on higher emission reducing activities and longer-term gains.
As the impact of climate change and resource scarcity develops the societal need and appetite for sustainable developments, there may be a further requirement for legislative development as a precursor for tighter standards and new investment in the sector.
To match with environmental concerns, a biological wastewater treatment technique could be derived using microbial culture for biological waste processing in the municipal, industrial, commercial, residential and agricultural sectors. Microbial solutions can help to biodegrade and reduce hydrocarbons, absorb and degrade oil spills residue, deodorize the waste, restore micronutrient balance, reduce maintenance costs and ensure a limited exposure to environmental liabilities.
Grit: The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs’ (Defra) Resource Security Action Plan (2012) identifies aggregates as a material that will be critical to the long-term resilience of the UK economy. The limited supply estimates the availability of indigenous land sand and gravel supplies to be 10 years and 40 years for crushed rock. So sourcing secondary aggregates will become increasingly important. Recycled aggregates (such as processed construction and demolition waste) account for nearly 20% of the aggregates market in the UK. Recycling sewer grit could add to this market.
Bio resources (Sludge): We can extract biogas and produce renewable energy from sludge, but it has a much greater value as a bio-resource. By implementing the necessary processing and transformation technologies, sludge can now be used to harvest valuable nutrients and the raw materials required to produce plastics and biofuels.
When applied to agriculture it can support the ability to feed a growing global population as recycling treated sludge to land is a sustainable option and can reduce the need for artificial fertiliser to improve soil structure.
Separate binding price control for sludge, covering treatment, transport, recycling and disposal will lower industry costs.
Furthermore, by creating merchant sludge facilities to treat sludge and act as a broker for access to sludge treatment capacity this will optimise the use of facilities.
Phosphorus: Phosphorus is a key nutrient for all living beings – thermally conditioned sewage sludge serves as an excellent fertiliser to improve soil properties.