If the world is even to come close to the international goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, we must figure out how to reduce the carbon footprint of wastewater treatment. However, the water industry needs better data about its infrastructure, creating an obstacle to one of the most important ways we can reduce carbon emissions: operational efficiency.
The systems we currently use to process wastewater are energy-intensive, globally using around 1.75 million gigawatt-hours each year – more than the combined electricity consumption of all households in the United States.
And this number is only set to grow. At last estimate, over 80% of the world’s wastewater is untreated, but this number is shrinking – with the global wastewater market expected to have grown at a compounded rate of 7.41% by 2030.
The problem is that water treatment operators are only very recently gaining access to the newest technologies they can use to improve their outcomes. This includes the Internet of Things (IoT): IoT technology has a vital role in optimizing how we handle wastewater and reducing the energy needs of the entire industry.
We’re looking at the greenhouse gas emissions of wastewater treatment, including its carbon footprint, and why and where there is a need for greater operational efficiency. We also explore how the newest IoT technologies can help operators collect high-quality data about their systems and help them see opportunities for efficiency improvements.
What is the carbon footprint of wastewater treatment?
Wastewater treatment is rarely featured in popular media. When calculated as part of the world’s overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, it looks small – only 1.3%. However, this is misleading because this figure only considers the GHGs directly produced – the organic matter from wastewater is a small but significant source of methane and nitrous oxide, both very potent GHGs.
What calculations like this need to take into account is how energy usage is distributed amongst industries. Wastewater treatment indirectly has a large carbon footprint because of its energy needs.
Most approaches to wastewater treatment aim to remove organic matter from the water, then process the sludge produced to stop harmful quantities of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphates from entering the local environment. There are various ways this can be done, with resultant differences in how much energy they need and the GHG emissions they produce.
Wastewater treatment needs better operational efficiency
One of the most significant problems in reducing the carbon footprint of wastewater treatment is the need for more data.
This is an issue at a global level – the UN, in its most recent report, was only able to collect data from 42 countries, with data on industrial wastewater only available for 18.
Lack of data is also an issue at a national level – as examples:
Lack of data and poor data quality stand in the way of efforts to improve operational efficiency. Better monitoring of the energy usage of wastewater treatment, as well as the carbon and GHG emissions of treatment processes, is needed to effectively tackle this problem.
In the example of the UK, it is estimated that optimizations could easily reduce C02 emissions of the country’s wastewater treatment by tens of thousands of tonnes each year, but many solutions rely on a combination of better data and capital investment.
How the Internet of Things helps us build more efficient wastewater management
The Internet of Things (IoT) has already proven to be a valuable development for wastewater treatment and the entire water management system. Smart water meters are one tool you’re likely already familiar with. They are becoming increasingly popular, and various jurisdictions heavily encourage their uptake.
The use of IoT technologies goes well beyond this. For example, in mid-2022, Scottish Water, Scotland’s public water provider, announced a £100 million investment in IoT tech to improve its wastewater infrastructure.
Scottish Water identified that better sewage monitoring is needed to “predict and prevent wastewater issues before they impact customers and the environment.” Their goal is to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2040 through improved operational efficiency.
In trying to reach this goal, they understood they had “...little access to real-time data regarding the quality of treatment or the condition and performance of critical assets.”
Sensor data collection and analysis from IoT systems, like the kind Scottish Water is implementing, has a few key benefits:
- It can be used to predict where maintenance is required and provide early warnings of any issues, reducing the chance of significant leaks and blockages in wastewater infrastructure
- IoT sensors can monitor chemical levels in wastewater, including carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and methane.
- Some sensors can also monitor water aeration, a key aspect of specific wastewater treatment processes.
- IoT systems can monitor and assess flow levels, allowing you to analyze and optimize water entering and leaving a wastewater treatment facility, supporting energy use optimization throughout the treatment process.
IoT technology has enormous potential for the wastewater treatment industry: protecting and extending the life of water infrastructure, optimizing wastewater treatment processes, and reducing the energy requirements throughout, reducing its carbon (and overall GHG) emissions footprint.
Join us as we help build a net-zero world!
Our Severn Water Leak Detection (WLD) system has an important role in helping the world save energy and water and reducing the carbon footprint of water infrastructure, including wastewater.
We developed Severn WLD in response to a significant problem in implementing IoT tech in existing water infrastructure: space.
Spaces where we put pipes, outlets, and valves – whether in your office, home or wastewater treatment facility – weren’t designed with a need for bulky sensor hardware in mind. We made a flexible, paper-thin water sensor array that can be wrapped around pipes and fit into the tightest spaces. You can use it to monitor water wherever you need it.
Learn more about Severn WLD