While this doesn’t apply to everyone and everything, human nature often results in leaving things until the last minute. Oftentimes we can escape unwanted consequences, be it health- or financial-related. However, good karma and in some cases, dumb luck is not a good strategy for life.
The environment, unsurprisingly, hasn’t been immune to this myopic mindset: if you ignore the problem, it goes away. And while we continue to make strides in the world of environmentally-focused technologies, particularly in regards scalability and cost (notably solar), we haven’t even begun to touch the surface around what’s truly possible.
The proverb, better late than never, certainly rings true in the worrying world of water, or lack thereof.
At a fundamental level, we need water to live. As human beings, we are mostly composed of water, which plays nicely into the healthcare analogy. We consume water everyday: to drink, to clean, to generate power (hydro); in farming and manufacturing. And like most things in life, we take it for granted, until we are faced with the prospect of dwindling supply or access. Fresh, clean water is a rare commodity. Only 0.007% of the planet’s water is readily available to fuel, feed and water the world’s 7.4 billion people.
Moreover, water is needed for energy. Energy is needed for water. And both energy and water are required for food. Now, consider these resource interdependencies from the perspective of a rapidly rising population, and the future begins to look quite scary.
By 2030, it is estimated there will be circa 8.2 billion people on the planet. This means that in just over 10 years from now, we’ll need 30% more water, 40% more energy and 50% more food. Water scarcity already effects every continent. Around 20% of the world’s population—over one billion people—do not currently have access to clean, drinkable water. These frightening statistics are exacerbated by the reality that water consumption has been growing at more than twice the rate of population growth for the last century.
Simply, the scarcity of water on our planet is arguably the biggest problem facing humankind. The good news is that this problem can be fixed. The United Nations state: “There is enough freshwater on the planet for seven billion people, but it is distributed unevenly and too much is wasted, polluted and unsustainably managed.”
To mitigate this worrying trajectory reaching an even higher point of crisis requires collective acceptance alongside collective action, and sufficient resources and investment in technologies to do the right thing today, for tomorrow.
There are myriad ways, technologies and perspectives from which to tackle this challenge. For these purposes, we will address one: Wastewater.
Sewage systems have been around since the Roman times. The challenge we face is that very little progress has been made since those times. This may sound ridiculous, but it’s true. Wastewater infrastructures are still centralized: we accumulate wastewater, we send it to a sewage plant, who in many cases do a sub-standard job at cleaning that water. Thereafter they send it back to its point of origin, and the horribly wasteful (pardon the pun) process starts all over again. Add to that the fact that all of this leads to shocking levels of environmental waste and pollution along the way. In the United States, the EPRI (Electric Power Research Institute) states that up to 2% of the country’s total energy consumption is down to wastewater treatment plants—a proportion that could be reduced significantly through the much-needed upgrading of the wastewater infrastructure. Alongside crumbling infrastructures, less than 1% of wastewater treatment plants convert their organics to energy. There is opportunity and hope, however.
The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) claim that $300B will be spent on upgrading water and wastewater infrastructure over the next 10 years. Those monies need to be invested wisely. This means the investment in new, innovative technologies that work. Maintaining the status quo, and appeasing antiquated political mindsets will only lead to more trouble down the road…hence recent talk of a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure is both timely and highly commendable.
The High Cost of Food Production
Switching over to the Food & Beverage industry, and its usage of water: The World Water Development Report states that agriculture is the largest consumer of water on the planet, accounting for 70% of global water withdrawals. Food & Beverage companies not only require water as a product ingredient, but also to run manufacturing processes. Moreover, with diets shifting from predominantly starch-based food to meat and dairy, which requires significantly more water, the problem only exacerbates. Clearly a fundamental shift is also required on the industrial side of water usage. Again, hope lies beyond the horizon, in multiple forms: from growing environmental regulations and a culture that is driving the adoption of sustainable practices through simple necessity, we are starting to see a much-needed Sea Change. Ultimately though, as is the case with municipal wastewater treatment plants, the greatest intentions in the world are blunt in the absence of meaningful, affordable and scalable technologies. This is where true innovation is required.
Wastewater-Energy Innovation that Works
There are literally thousands of companies in the marketplace trying to solve the problems inherent in the treatment of wastewater. And given the value that wastewater offers, it isn’t difficult to understand why this is the case. Aside from providing an enormous opportunity to sustainably address the global issue of strained water supplies, wastewater is also a “dispatchable” source of energy. In other words, as an energy source, wastewater is available 24/7/365 versus variable renewable energy sources, like solar and wind, which (storage aside) are contingent on climatic conditions to ensure consistent supply.
When it comes to “mining” the resources from wastewater, however, there is no silver bullet. Having said that, ClearCove is doing a pretty good job at pioneering an antiquated wastewater world. Its heavily patented technology is essentially rooted in gravity. Profoundly simple, yet highly effective, we are learning that this technology is probably the best in the world at removing insoluble organics and inorganics from wastewater—a perfect fit with much of the Food & Beverage world. This means the recovery of more water for reuse—the technology can recover up to 90% of the water for reuse—alongside the creation of a much greater opportunity for energy generation due to the delivery of a higher quality sludge—a “fuel” for energy when fed into an anaerobic digester.
Somewhat ironically, this technology was created and patented in Rochester, New York, in the heart of the beautiful Finger Lakes—the source of 7% of the world’s fresh water supply. The Finger Lakes also offer 1.5 million acres of farmland alongside access to 120 million people who live within 500 miles of the region, which means a speedy route from farm to fridge, and aligns nicely with the Food-Energy-Water nexus which lies at the heart of ClearCove’s vision to: Sustain Our Planet’s Resources through Wastewater-Energy Technology.
The idea of an innovative start-up in a water-rich area, with technology that could play a meaningful role in addressing the world’s shortage of water and other resources, represents a fascinating story that is only beginning…