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by Christopher Allan, Journalist, Utility Magazine

It’s promising to see that around Australia, more and more organisations like city councils are pledging ambitious emission reduction targets – but what does the journey to zero emissions look like at the scale of our major utilities?

The Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA) recently announced that 14 Australian and New Zealand water utilities have collectively joined a Race to Zero campaign, with each developing a tangible strategy for net zero emissions reduction by at least 2050, including interim targets.

Here we look at how these water utilities are recalibrating their assets for emissions reduction and delivering new renewable projects – all without compromising ongoing service delivery to millions.

Challenges for managing water services

The water sector is both shaped by the effects of climate change and an essential part of the conversation regarding emissions reduction.

Major drought events, like the Millennium Drought that affected countless communities, highlight the livelihoods at stake when it comes to water access and security in Australia.

And with the recent IPCC Assessment Report 6 describing the current outlook on climate change as a ‘code red for humanity’, drought events are predicted to become longer and more frequent.

Adding to the challenges posed to the water sector by a changing climate, global population growth can also affect water security – by 2025, more than 2.8 billion people in 48 countries are likely to be short of water.

From an emissions perspective, managing water services for cities and towns is an energy intensive activity: water use, storage, and distribution accounts for around ten per cent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Water utilities have a global responsibility to work around the challenges of climate change from both angles – from developing ways and technologies that adapt to water shortage, to tackling sector emissions.

A leadership opportunity for our water sector

Australia has an opportunity to develop a smart framework to guide water utilities around the world when it comes to meeting consumer outcomes  while keeping emissions in check. Over the next 15 years, Australia’s water utilities are expected to take large steps in further reducing their energy consumption, slashing their internal costs of energy consumption while making a sizable contribution to emissions reduction efforts.

Importantly, many water sector assets have natural opportunities for sustainable practices and technologies, best shown by the rise of waste to energy practices. By harnessing and recycling the energy and other resources generated by waste products from water treatment, water utilities can make substantial progress towards emission reduction targets.

For example, if the hydraulic energy generated by the waste stream of some desalination plants can be fed back into the treatment cycle, it could allow water utilities to unlock efficiencies up to 97 percent – particularly promising given that bettering the sustainability of desalination plants is a long-term goal in the sector.

Indeed, many water utilities have already proven to be early adopters of waste to energy, wind, and solar technologies, sustainably powering critical infrastructure. A combination of improving asset practices alongside investment in dedicated, utility-scale renewable projects will ensure that the water sector makes progress towards  upcoming targets.

The race to zero

Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA), in partnership with Water UK, announced that 14 Australian and New Zealand water utilities have joined the UN-led, Race To Zero campaign, pledging to reach Net Zero Emissions by 2050 or earlier, with interim targets within the next decade.

The water utilities, 13 Australian and one New Zealand, join major UK water utilities in the Race To Zero campaign, together servicing over 72 million people across Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

These 14 utilities are:

• Barwon Water

• Coliban Water

• Gippsland Water

• Goulburn Valley Water

• Icon Water

• Melbourne Water

• SA Water

• South East Water

• Southern Rural Water

• Sydney Water

• Unitywater

• Urban Utilities

• Watercare (New Zealand)

• Yarra Valley Water

Executive Director at WSAA, Adam Lovell, said, “Congratulations to all the Australian and New Zealand water utilities for this show of commitment and leadership on mitigating the impacts of climate change, felt so acutely in the water sector.

“As early adopters of wind, solar and waste to energy technology to power our infrastructure, we are thrilled to see so many of our water utilities joining the Race To Zero pledge.”

Water utilities on the race to zero

In this section, we explore a few examples of the approaches that Australia’s leading water utilities are taking on the Race To Zero.

Yarra Valley water

In Victoria, Yarra Valley Water was one of the first water utilities globally to sign a pledge to Net Zero as part of its work to generate renewable energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The utility has plans to power all its operations by renewables by 2025, with 50 per cent already powered by renewables.

On joining the UN Race to Zero pledge, Managing Director, Yarra Valley Water, Pat McCafferty, said, “Climate change is the defining issue of our time and we’re proud to be leading the way in reducing our greenhouse gas emissions with ambitious goals that go beyond zero.

“We’ve achieved this through leading projects like our food waste to energy facility at Wollert, which converts about 30,000 tonnes of food scraps into more than 7,000,000kWh of clean energy a year.”

Waste producers, such as markets or food manufacturers, deliver the equivalent of 33,000 tonnes of commercial food waste to the Wollert
facility each year. Well on track to meeting its Race To Zero pledge, Yarra Valley Water has also partnered with other Victorian water corporations in purchasing up to 7,000 MWh of renewable energy through the Zero Emissions Water (ZEW) program.

ZEW is a joint effort between 13 water corporations to purchase energy from the Kiamal Solar Farm at Ouyen, Victoria’s largest solar farm.

Chair of ZEW, Paul O’Donohue, said, “The 13 water corporations will each take a percentage share of the total renewable energy ZEW purchases based on their local needs. “The purchase agreement is set for eleven years and will be supplying each corporation up to 50 per cent of their renewable energy requirement.”

This collaborative model of jointly engaging a renewable project to offset sector emissions could prove to be popular across other states of Australia, other parts of the world, and in other utility sectors.

Unitywater

In Queensland, Unitywater has made an interim goal that the year 2025 will deliver 45 per cent emissions reduction, 100 per cent biosolids reuse and diversion from landfill, as well as 15,000MWh renewable energy generation.

In 2020, Unitywater recognised emissions reduction as a utility-wide priority, delivering the Unitywater 2020-2027 Energy Management Plan.

The Plan recognised that sustainable practices could help the utility manage increasing demand on both sewer and water networks, with the populations of the Sunshine Coast and Moreton Bay set to grow by more than 250,000, to over one million by 2031.

Importantly, sewage treatment plants (STPs) at Unitywater account for nearly half of all energy spend – a key component of the Plan was to ensure its major STPs were on track towards becoming energy neutral.

Solar panels have allowed the Kenilworth STP to become energy neutral, while a cogeneration plant is producing renewable energy to partially power the Kawana STP.

Indeed, STP upgrades at Unitywater are part of a management plan that aims to save the equivalent of $2.5 million per annum in energy costs between 2020 and 2027. Future STP upgrades include the increased reuse of Biogas, and solar panel and battery installation at four of Unitywater’s largest treatment plants.

Melbourne water

At Melbourne Water, construction has begun on a new solar farm at the Eastern Treatment Plant in Bangholme in recognition that water utility assets can be supported by dedicated renewable projects. The Eastern Treatment Plant currently treats about 330 million litres of sewage a day – about 40 per cent of Melbourne’s total sewage.

The plant already includes a biogas facility that generates approximately 30 per cent of the electricity required each year to run the plant, highlighting how the industry has already taken to waste to energy technologies where possible.

The proposed solar farm will produce another 22 per cent of electricity required, taking on-site generation to 52 per cent. The project will help Melbourne Water meet its interim target to halve emissions by 2025 and explore a path to reduce them to net zero by 2030. The solar farm is expected to be completed mid-2022.

A positive outlook for the water sector

The 14 water utilities who have committed to the Race To Zero pledge reflect a broader pattern of leadership across the water sector when it comes to sustainable technologies and emissions reduction.

Executive Director at WSAA, Adam Lovell, said, “There are many other water utilities who are well on their way in contributing to a net zero future, and may join the Race To Zero campaign in the coming months.

“The industry is on the front foot in this rapidly evolving area, especially in light of the recent IPCC report on climate change.” Through joint collaborations to fund renewable energy offsets programs, waste to energy initiatives that create new energy sources, and dedicated, on-site renewable projects like solar farms, the water sector is leaving its mark in a global race to zero emissions.

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