Everyone has heard of Einstein’s E=MC2. But what does this matter on a daily basis? What difference does this make in terms of my power and water? At WEFTEC in early October, the issues of power and water came together for 3 days of discussion.
WEFTEC is an annual conference put on by the Water Environment Federation (WEF) as a way to bring water, wastewater, and stormwater providers together to review the latest technology and scientific research in their fields. With increasing maintenance cost due to aging infrastructure, stricter regulations for treatment requirements, and decreased budgets due to the recession, money has become an even larger concern. Add that to the fact that most water-providing professionals work in the government non-profit sector, and you get the perfect storm of job difficulty. Since one of the biggest operating expenses is power, and power costs money, technology that can reduce kilowatt-hour consumption or power demand is rapidly becoming of paramount importance.
While efficiency and use reduction help, there is nothing new about making better motors and peak shaving. The really exciting new stuff is the nutrient and energy recovery work being done. For the most part, water and wastewater treatment are processes designed to remove a mass of solids from water. If energy and mass are equivalent, then that mass can be turned into energy. So, in theory, if you get enough mass coming in with your water, you can turn that mass into energy that you can then use to remove the mass and create clean water. This is the basic premise behind net-zero treatment plants. It sounds like science fiction, but it is actually happening. Furthermore, if you can treat drinking water and stormwater using less power as well, then there will be less power needed and less water needed to help make that power. Welcome to the Energy-Water Nexus. This is WEFTEC.
Before any of the exhibitors have opened their booths and before any keynote speakers have inspired us to care more than we already do, there are the technical sessions. The first two unofficial days (Saturday and Sunday this year) were reserved for participants who paid extra to get 8-16 hours of specific training to do their work better. I was able to pop in and out of 3 sessions on the first day. Here is what I learned:
112: Wastewater as a Re-N-E-W-able Resource: Nutrients, Energy, and Water
Public perception is that wastewater is full of bad microorganisms, and once you “filter” them out or otherwise “clean” out all the bacteria, the water is good again. It’s really much more than that though. There are a lot of elements and compounds in wastewater than are useful in other settings. We don’t want to be drinking them or putting them into our streams and lakes, but many of the materials are plenty useful for farmers. Organic biosolids as well as specific nutrients isolated from treatment steps (such as Nitrogen and Phosphorous) are very good for adding to soil. Furthermore, often the creation of these accessory products can create fuel substances as well, such as methane. This can be refined and used in engines to generate power. And while these aren’t new ideas, the way we are doing these traditional processes is undergoing some change. New chemistries are being researched to see how the best way to capture this incoming mass, and use it more effectively in conversion to energy. There were presentations about further accepting other waste products to be used as treatment aids, again creating greater quantity of valuable nutrients outputs while turning waste into energy-producing, in-process products. The takeaway for this workshop was that we need to learn more chemistry. The present and the future of nutrient, energy, and water are going to be all about the chemistry.
103: Wastewater Microbiology
We need to learn more microbiology too. What the public doesn’t realize is that we aren’t cleaning the water ourselves. We are just making the conditions right for tons of tiny “bugs” to clean the water for us. This workshop was specifically designed for treatment operators, but the presenters did a good job of selling the idea that microbiology is interesting and important for everyone. There were slide presentations about what the “bugs” looked like, what their presence or absence indicate to us in terms of the processes they were performing, and what they should be doing (mainly they should be eating). Furthermore, there was hands-on use of microscopes to really see the bugs in action and get a feel for how to observe them. Every high school guidance counselor should sit through one of these sessions to further plug not only the benefits of microbiology, but also the interesting aspects of what a microbiologist can do. Ever wanted to lead an army of 1000’s of organisms that can fit under a microscope but yet do the most important work in our modern civilization?
113: What is Sustainable Design?
The third session I was sampling was all about what it means to be sustainable. I interpreted it as a session where I would see all the cool new technology in the sustainability fight. In actuality, it was a session about how to show and determine true measures of sustainability. There were charts, data sets, and excel-based “tools” used to illustrate what a real “sustainable design” was. It was the least sexy session I had been too, but even with my short in-and-out presence I could see that it was one of the most important. Its importance lies in the fact that I previously stated: money is one of the key drivers of the non-profit water service industry. Innovation has to pan out on paper, and this session was about how to gather data, research, and information before and after a project to show that it meets or exceeds both financial requirements and physical performance goals.