Industry has a greater role in securing Australia’s water supply

Tuesday, 23 April, 2013

Australia has faced severe challenges with drought and flood in recent years. This is unquestioned; however, with the water industry gathering for the Ozwater conference in Perth next week, James Currie, Client Services Director, Australia, Black & Veatch, wonders how many business leaders outside the water industry will be discussing water? Perhaps more than we might expect but probably not as many as should be.

Water is a fuel, vital for business and every bit as critical to moving our economy forward as energy. Australia has been commended worldwide for its ability to sustain economic growth in spite of its water challenges. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, we consumed 25% less water in 2008-09 than we did four years prior, and two-thirds less than nearly a decade before.

Western Australia continues in this vein, in particular. It is pinched by balancing increasing demands for water resulting from the growth of its population and economy with reduced rainfall and runoff.

A lot of awareness around water use relates to direct use of water in our homes. Yet, only 8% of water is consumed domestically worldwide and about 14% in Australia. While efforts to extend the utility of each drop of water by individuals should be applauded, we can truly make a difference by paying more attention to water used by industry and agriculture.

Significant savings were made by people in their homes throughout Australia over the past decade but the major credit for a noteworthy decrease in water consumption actually goes to agriculture. The biggest user made the biggest impact (and made the biggest sacrifice). This sector alone used less than half what it used in 2000-01.

The same savings were not made by industry. Don’t get me wrong. This is not about bashing business. Australian industries added about $1.2 trillion of gross value for the water used in 2008-09. This is about  60% higher than the approximate $750 billion of value industries added to the country’s gross domestic product in 2000-01.

There is an opportunity for industry in Australia to play a bigger role in securing our future water supplies, by looking at the supply chain and industry’s total water impacts in a holistic manner. Not only is this good for our nation, but it helps protect against the severe operational risks that accompany a water crisis.

Boardroom attitudes to water are changing globally. Water is serious business, especially if there’s too little or too much. Many of tomorrow’s successful businesses will be those that can capitalise on changing water availability, measure and manage their water use, and manage the risks that water shortage or excess water can pose to their supply chain.

Water has a special role in power generation. Large quantities of water are typically required in power production, and seemingly small and unrelated actions can have staggering implications for consumption when aggregated. For example, a simple Google search consumes the equivalent of 1/16th of a teaspoon of water as calculated by one of our engineers. Multiplied by the millions of searches each day, this soon adds up to a tidy sum.

Only wind and solar photovoltaic electricity production require minimal water withdrawal. We are, unfortunately, not at the stage where we can flick a switch to wind or solar for a number of pragmatic reasons. The sheer volume of new facilities required to offset current generation capacity is daunting, let alone the development of the required advanced storage technologies. But the goal of using more water-efficient technologies at the many conventional power plants could produce significant gains for electricity producers in Australia.

Around the world, we’re seeing this happen. In South Africa, Black & Veatch helped the electricity utility Eskom adopt air-cooled condensers as an alternative to traditional water-cooling techniques at its 4800 MW Kusile power plant. When completed, it will be one of the largest power plants in the world using air-cooling technology and will save approximately 327,000 cubic metres per day through this one feature; sufficient to fill more than 130 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Outside the power sector, there are many innovations that other businesses can apply to save water. Re-use is a way businesses could make a big impact on their water consumption. Recent advances in membrane technology, championed in countries like Australia and Singapore, mean high-quality recycled water can be produced cost effectively and meet the rigorous requirements of specialised producers of semiconductors and pharmaceuticals. Adapting and proving the reliability of membranes for recycling at global award-winning facilities like the Bundamba Advanced Water Treatment Plant near Brisbane has paved the way for a mature public and private market for membrane technology. Predictions from the market research firm Frost & Sullivan last month estimate the potential for more than 60% growth in this market in Australia and New Zealand within just six years.

Other industrial players can also look seriously at closed-loop applications, where systems retain and re-use hot water, steam or cold water for a variety of alternative uses. Real, long-term operational savings can be reaped from limited capital investments.

Cogeneration technologies, where steam or heat is produced alongside electricity, are becoming more widespread in Australia. The Chinese government is now investigating trigeneration seriously. One current study is looking at how producing electricity, steam or heat and cooling at the same time could ease the high demands for energy and water from China’s industrial sector.

So, next week at Ozwater, the challenge remains to enrol industry further on a journey to secure our country’s future water supply.

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