SPECIAL REPORT / Bulgaria loses as much as half its urban water supply through leaks, and across the European Union, some as much as 40% of piped water never makes it to consumers. But emerging technology could help reduce waste and turn water systems into energy sources.
The push for innovation and public-private partnerships comes amid growing pressure to conserve freshwater resources and improve irrigation efficiency as outlined in the European Commission’s Water Blueprint last month. The document also calls for ‘innovation partnerships’ to achieve efficiency.
One example of such a partnership is Hidromod, a small Portuguese software firm that has jointed the global engineering company Bentley Systems to develop Aquasafe. The software and technology platform provides real-time information for water and wastewater plants to help detect leaks and improve planning during periods of high demand.
Slavco Velickov, water industry director for Bentley Systems Europe, said the platform helps “take dull infrastructure and make them data carriers so we move towards smarter water networks.”
The system uses sensors and monitors connected to water plants and pipelines. Already in use in Portugal and Brazil, Aquasafe has attracted interest in thirsty urban areas in the Middle East.
Greater precision saves energy, wear and tear on equipment, and reduces waste, Velickov said at the European Forum on Eco-innovation, a European Commission event held in Lisbon on 26-27 November.
Adélio Silva, the manager of Hidromod, said Aquasafe helps water and wastewater systems “anticipate problems and to focus on prevention rather than reaction.” Aquasafe was launched in 2011.
Though these and other monitoring technologies are not unique, industry officials say they are still relatively uncommon in water and wastewater treatment systems, especially in cities with ageing metal or, in some older areas, wooden pipes or ill-maintained infrastructure. Today, durable polyvinyl chloride pipes are seen as more efficient because they are less subject to corrosion.
The European Environment Agency, in a report released in November, said urban water delivery in the EU varies considerably with loss rates of between 20% and more than 40%.
The highest losses are typically in more disadvantaged EU states, such as Bulgaria, where half the urban water supply is lost through leakage, EEA figures show. But even in more prosperous countries, waste is common. Some 30% of piped water is lost in France and Italy is 30%, while in Denmark and Germany the leakage rate is less than 10%.
The European Commission last week recognized six companies in Austria, Germany, Britain and Italy for their efforts to improve public water management. The awards included operations that provide more efficient water delivery and wastewater handling.
In another drive for innovation, a Portuguese company is using the pressure in urban water pipes to generate electricity.
Power from water pipes
Engineers at Spheraa, a small firm in Lisbon, developed TERESA – the Portuguese acronym for renewable energy turbine in the water supply system – using micro-turbines to produce electricity fitted into water pipes.
Similar technology is being used elsewhere. In the United States, the small Colorado city of Boulder generates electricity using turbines using turbines driven by the public water supply and uses the revenue it generates from selling to the local power company to help pay for water system improvements.
Spheraa’s chief sees the system as a win-win situation for water utilities. Besides generating electricity, the turbines can reduce excess pressure in water pipes, pressure that over the long term can cause damage and leakage.
Though relatively simple in concept, the technology posed challenges.
“The basic principle behind it is similar to a water dam, but the operation is very different from a water dam because the Number One priority is water supply, it’s not energy production,” João Alves Pereira, Spheraa’s chief executive, said in an interview. “So we had to adapt our turbine for those conditions.”
The electricity package plants are small (7 x 5 metres) with 85 kilowatts of rated power. In the Portuguese city of Alveiro, the project produces enough energy each day for about 150 homes in a city of some 80,000 people. “If you compare it to a normal water dam it is small, but if you think about it, it’s a really big potential that you’ve wasted every day,” Pereira said.
The turbines are housed in a bypass pipe and can be turned off at any time without affecting regular water flow. The power plants produce 100 kilowatts to 150 kilowatts at a cost of up to €300,000, Pereira said.
Spheraa’s chief stressed that safety is a priority. “Every project that we [do], first we have to agree that the water quality will not be affected and also the water volume, meaning that we have to adapt to the site conditions and not the other way around.”
Water use by sector varies across the European Union – with agriculture the main consumer of freshwater in more arid regions, while home and industrial consumption lead in damper climates.
Overall, households, business, hospitals and offices account for 20% of water use, says a May 2012 report by the European Environment Agency. Of that, flushing toilets consumes nearly one-third of water, but leakage from old pipes, commodes or public water supplies is also a big consumer.
Calls for efficiency measures are growing, and not just by policymakers. Leading water-consuming industries, including beverage and food manufacturers, are taking steps to improve efficiency to cut costs but also in the face of mounting concerns about supply security.
EEA figures show that while much of Europe has ample freshwater, parts of Spain, France, Italy, Britain, Belgium and the Baltic states along with much of Cyprus have faced stress or extreme stress in recent years – with demand exceeding supply.
- European Environment Agency: Europe’s water: efficient use is a must
- European Environment Agency: European waters - current status and future challenges
- European Commission: Europeans call for stronger EU action on water
- European Commission: A Blueprint to Safeguard Europe’s Water Resources
- European Commission: A Blueprint to safeguard Europe’s waters
- European Commission: Innovation Partnership on Water
- European Commission: Green Week: Every Drop Counts
- European Commission: Eco-Innovation
- European Water Partnership: Water Stewardship