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SA Water continues to integrate sustainable and innovative energy management practices into its large-scale water and wastewater pumping operations.

The utility’s significant shift towards renewable energy is highlighted by its Zero Cost Energy Future initiative, an internally conceived project rarely seen on such size and scope in the global water industry. Recently recognised with both national and global award recognition, the utility’s efforts to deliver more than 360,000 solar panels, battery storage and demand scheduling technology is set to play a key role in its goal towards achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2030.

A solar journey

With more than 27,000km of water mains and 9,000km of underground sewers, SA Water’s statewide pumping operations are significant in size and scope. SA Water’s General Manager Strategy, Engagement, and Innovation, Nicola Murphy, said, “The energy required to service our customers makes us one of South Australia’s highest users of electricity, with our 2021-22 operating electricity bill reaching approximately $74 million.”

“This also makes us the second largest consumer of electricity among our fellow water utilities across Australia, consuming almost one-fifth of the national total. “As a result, this reliance on the national electricity grid exposes us to the fluctuations in price and flow-on impacts to our bottom line.

“Driven by a desire to deliver sustainable benefits for our customers and business, our own people came together and conceived our Zero Cost Energy Future project as a means to slash operating costs and carbon emissions, while providing a behind-the-meter electricity supply to reduce our reliance on the power grid.”

The project focuses on key initiatives including demand scheduling, energy efficiency, energy storage and generation, and energy market levers designed to effectively manage long-term energy usage. The project’s largest feature includes a sizable investment of around 370,000 solar photovoltaic panels integrated at 33 SA Water locations, ranging from regional depots, pipelines, and water pumping stations, to the tens of thousands of panels installed at the Adelaide Desalination Plant in the city’s southern suburbs.

“In a similar way that you see Australians experiencing the benefits of solar panels at home, we’re making some of our physical assets work harder for us, taking advantage of our large buildings, roof spaces and landholdings as the perfect platform to generate a sustainable source of energy for years to come,” Ms Murphy said.

“Since constructing the project’s first solar panel in 2019, we have energised and connected the majority of our solar sites to the national electricity grid, which is a terrific achievement to deliver a project of this size despite the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When all connected, these 33 sites will generate 242GWh of clean, green solar energy per year, which is around 70 per cent of our annual electricity needs in an average weather and water consumption year.”

The flow-on benefits for the environment are also clear, with an estimated 89,000t reduction in estimated carbon emissions every year of operation. “There will still be times when we draw electricity from the grid to power our pumping operations, but we’ll offset those costs by storing and selling energy we produce at other times, to bring our net external electricity expenses down,” Ms Murphy said.

SA water’s Andrew Jackson and Nima Vahidi at the Australian Institute of energy SA awards

Gaining global recognition

As one of the largest renewables projects in the global water industry, SA Water’s focus on solar continues to gain the attention of both the national and international water industry.

Most recently, SA Water was awarded Energy Project of the Year at the 2022 Australian Institute of Energy (SA Branch) Awards. The annual event recognises the milestones and successes achieved in South Australia’s energy industry. “To be recognised by the state’s energy industry is a feather in the cap for our team and contract partners working to deliver this exciting project for the benefit of our business and the wider community,” Ms Murphy said.

“This is off the back of two other major accolades in the past year, having claimed Infrastructure Project of the Year at the Australian Water Awards, and a distinction at the Global Water Awards in Spain. “Going up against our counterparts working in Saudi Arabia, Israel, Mexico and the Philippines was always going to be a tough task, but to be awarded a distinction is a terrific recognition for the efforts of our people.

“Being the only Australian water utility awarded a prize helps us to reflect on the achievements of our team, and the important role they play in making a difference for our customers and South Australia as a whole.”

SA water’s General Manager Strategy Engagement and Innovation, Nicola Murphy

Achieving zero net emissions by 2030

As the world shifts towards a low-carbon economy, water utilities like SA Water recognise the importance of moving with it. As part of its refreshed corporate strategy, the utility has developed a suite of ambitious — yet achievable — goals, including achieving net zero emissions by 2030, net zero waste by 2040, and continued improvements in achieving biodiversity on its landholdings.

“It’s clear that one of the most significant challenges facing our business is climate change, and it’s important we have clear and tangible goals towards reducing our carbon footprint for the benefit of our customers and the environment,” Ms Murphy said.

“On top of Zero Cost Energy Future, we’re also taking small but immediate actions where we can, including expanding our use of electric vehicles as part of our fleet vehicles stationed around South Australia. “These actions won’t happen overnight, but we know a continued effort and focus will help our business be more resilient in the face of a changing climate.”

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