‘Industrial water’s time to shine’ by Charlie Walker, Research Director, Global Water Intelligence
Industrial end-users are having to face up to a reality of greater water-related business risks, much of which is being accelerated by climate change. Meanwhile, pressure is also mounting from more ESG-conscious investors, consumers and regulators, pushing end-users to implement more sustainable water management practices. The rationale for a more circular water strategy can be ignored less and less.
It has been an arduous journey for water in the world of ESG. Despite water’s critical role in industrial operations, goals have often taken a backseat to other sustainability efforts targeting areas such as energy consumption or carbon emissions. However, internal and external pressures are driving industrial players, particularly the global brands, to focus much clearer attention on water stewardship. The total number of established objectives, whether the indicator is reducing water consumption or increasing water reuse, is growing significantly year-on-year among top revenue earners.
The challenge for end-users now is that many of the quick wins for water use reduction or becoming more circular have been implemented. It means that going forward, businesses are going to have to be a lot more sophisticated in their water management. This is creating opportunities for both technology and alternative business models.
One example technology is high-recovery reverse osmosis, which contributes towards goals of reducing water consumption and discharge volumes. This approach can also help businesses achieve fit-for-purpose water qualities for reuse applications. Interest is rising across numerous industrial verticals; however, these systems also create more concentrated reject which end-users need to take care of. As this brine contains many useful salts and metals, the interest in refining the stream is growing, thanks to efforts by outfits such as Neom in Saudi Arabia and the Zero Brine project in Europe.
Meanwhile, outsourcing – where the customer buys an outcome (e.g. treated water) rather than a physical asset – can help industrial end-users reach ambitious water targets, leaving the plant in the hands of a water specialist. However, rather than just building a treatment plant and running it under a traditional build-own-operate model, an emerging Technology-as-a-Service model puts the technology centre stage, which is increasingly the reality of these projects, as digital optimisation, monitoring and control become commonplace.
Emphasising how a focus on water management contributes to an overall net-zero carbon target is also an important tool in the arsenal. For example, implementing anaerobic digestion yields biogas, which can be used to power treatment operations or upgraded to biomethane to be injected into the grid.
Water is a critical part of European aims to reach climate neutrality and a circular economy by 2050. The industrial community has recognised such, and the water sector is ready to answer the call.