A focus on capital carbon and environmental impact will reap dividends for the water sector, says Sally Watson.
It’s an exciting time in the UK water sector. The Environment Agency’s National Framework for Water Resources, driven by the National Infrastructure Commission’s report ‘Preparing for a drier future’, means the industry is taking a more holistic approach to planning water services. Regional water resources planning groups have a central role in ensuring water supplies are secure and sustainable, taking account of multiple water users – households, farmers and industry, for example – and the environment. This will provide greater resilience and environmental protection. It particularly benefits regions such as the south and east of the UK, where key risks over the coming years include high population growth combined with greater seasonal water stress, linked to climate change.
The water sector has also committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions for its operations by 2030. We worked with the water sector to develop the route-map for this shift, highlighting more than 40 decarbonisation options for water companies to pursue over the next 10 years. Together, the challenges of sustainable water resource management and decarbonisation will require substantial changes for water and wastewater companies. They also open up the possibility of creating efficiencies and cost savings that can be reinvested or passed on to customers.
Spotlight on carbon and biodiversity
Industry regulator Ofwat has allowed water companies to spend £450M during the 2020-2025 investment period in order to investigate and develop solutions to bolster the long-term resilience of regional water supplies. Solutions identified are likely to include new reservoirs, water reuse, desalination and major water transfer infrastructure. Once it is clear which solutions are needed, further investment will be allowed for construction.
While working out how to meet very substantial needs, companies must focus on minimising capital carbon, as well as designing new assets for net-zero emissions in operation. This means opting for no-build, low-build and nature-based solutions where possible: it will involve reconfiguring or optimising existing assets, changing land use and operating regimes to alter the amount of treatment required, and employing natural systems alongside engineered ones – all assisted by digitalisation, which improves companies’ ability to understand and solve problems, and deliver and manage assets. Carbon is a proxy for cost, with low carbon leaders in all sectors achieving a 2:1 ratio between the two. Anglian Water achieved more than a 60% carbon reduction with 30% cost savings across its 2015-20 investment cycle, measured against a baseline set in 2010.
The industry must also strengthen its focus on biodiversity. Although large investment in wastewater infrastructure has improved water quality in the UK’s rivers and coastal waters over the past 20 years, only 14% of the UK’s rivers meet good ecological status under the Water Framework Directive – no improvement since 2009. Indeed, things have started getting worse. Nitrate levels have been increasing for the past two years, leading to overgrowth of algae, which depletes oxygen levels and damages other wildlife. And more intense rainstorms linked to climate change are causing more combined sewer overflows and resulting water pollution incidents. As well as affecting biodiversity, this has social impact: only two thirds of the UK’s bathing waters were rated ‘excellent’ in a 2019 survey by the European Environment Agency, one of the lowest scores achieved by any EU nation.
The challenge – and opportunity – is to meet environmental compliance requirements with minimal ‘hard’ engineering.
A good example of this is Anglian Water’s Ingoldisthorpe Water Recycling Centre in Norfolk, UK. The local river is one of only 200 chalk rivers in the world, providing a rare habitat where water quality had to be protected. The Environment Agency required ammonia and phosphate discharge levels from the treatment plant into the river to be tightened. Constructing a new treatment plant would have had a high cost and carbon footprint, so a soft engineering solution was proposed instead – developing a wetland ecosystem that removed phosphate from water flowing through it. The Ingoldisthorpe treatment site has become a haven for wildlife, while also saving £4.2M in cost and 55% capital carbon emissions, compared to a traditional solution. There have been great social benefits too; the site is open to visitors who want to see the fauna and flora of the wetland. Local schools are using the site for research and learning.
Such environmental and social benefits contribute to positive relationships with customers. This is valuable in times of water stress, when water companies need their customers to limit water use, and also helps to counter public objections when construction, maintenance or repair work cause local disruption.
It is important to recognise that very low or zero carbon solutions need to be put through a rigorous environmental impact assessment, just like any other project. For example, when developing a water conditioning plant for Affinity Water north of Luton, UK, it initially looked like it could be powered with renewable electricity by installing 600 solar panels. But closer study showed that the proposed site for the solar array was high quality grassland, rich with wildlife. We relocated the panels to and enhanced the grassland to increase overall biodiversity. This showed that a blended approach that balances onsite energy generation with a biodiversity net gain is possible. We are now working with Affinity Water to develop the project.
Carbon, biodiversity and social outcomes must be considered from the beginning
Carbon, biodiversity and social outcomes should be addressed alongside cost from project outset. Clients and regulators are increasingly tuned in and recognise that the best solutions are not always those with the lowest capital cost, but those which provide the best outcomes across all four areas.
Moving through this investment cycle and into the next, the water industry needs to keep people and the environment clearly in sight, as well as chasing down its goal of cutting carbon to net-zero and delivering ongoing value for money to its customers.