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Is the Water Sector on the Carbon Emitter Bench? 

Imagine H2O Takes a Deep Dive on Decarbonization of the Water Sector

Net zero, what? Decarbonization of the water sector has taken on many names: reducing carbon emissions, reaching net zero energy, removing carbon dioxide and methane. Not to be confused with net zero, water; that’s a whole other article in itself. Call it what you’d like, decarbonization of the water sector is at the top of everyone’s watch list.

At Imagine H2O, we’ve seen an intense focus on decarbonization from our industry and utility partners. Decarbonization is the challenge that is plaguing every industry and is the first topic of conversation when it comes to innovation priorities from some of the largest service providers in water. The need for emerging technologies is at an all time high. To match that need, we’ve seen a massive uptick in applications to our programs that are tackling this issue. In 2023, there were more applications to Imagine H2O programs focused on the water-energy nexus than ever received before. 

Drowning in Emissions

Water use, storage, distribution, and wastewater treatment account for about 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Yes, you read that correctly, 10%; that’s a staggering value. The road to broad decarbonization clearly includes an essential stop at the water sector.

Water is like the kid that was picked last for the kickball team. All the other carbon emission players were on the first draft, leaving water on the bench.

In February 2023, a study released by Princeton University, reported that methane emissions from centralized wastewater treatment facilities are likely ~2x higher than what was previously reported by the IPPC and US EPA. AKA, wastewater sector emission calculations were grossly underestimated and the sector actually has up to twice as much work to do than originally thought.

Orianna Bretschger, founder of Aquacycl, is a leading decarbonization expert who works with customers such as PepsiCo and ABInBev. Learn more about Orianna and Aquacycl’s work here.

Louise Parlons Bentata, co-founder of Bluemethane, a methane recovery technology company, is on a mission to turn off the methane tap in the water sector. Learn more about the groundbreaking work here

The challenge is further compacted by the fact that water is rarely included in the carbon emissions discussion. With the more prominent carbon emitters in the limelight, water has taken a back seat. This translates into less direct scrutiny, less regulations, less incentive, less traction of innovative solutions and less capital dollars being driven to decarbonizing the water sector. Talk about a series of unfortunate events.

All is not lost though…

The Innovation Opportunity

The good news is that sustainability goals are now almost universally required by companies, including industrial wastewater producers and water utilities. Publicly traded companies are required to report progress to ESG Scope 1, 2, and 3 carbon emission reduction. Now more than ever, industrial wastewater producers are in the hot seat to track and reduce their carbon emissions. 

Water utilities are also being asked to take a closer look at their GHG emissions. In 2022, approximately 27% of water utilities’ operating expenses were from energy costs alone. Not only does improving water management strategies provide clear financial incentives, water utilities are also striving to meet stricter sustainability goals. 

Devesh Bharadwaj, founder of Pani, a cloud based operational intelligence platform for desalination and wastewater treatment facilities, is an expert leading the conversation on decarbonization of the water sector. Learn more about Pani here

At WEFTEC 2023 in Chicago, Imagine H2O led a Deep Dive session on decarbonization in partnership with the Water Environment Federation and BlueTech Research for water innovation industry leaders like Singapore PUB, DC Water, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, Ferguson, Xylem, Veolia, and Grundfos. Broad collaboration and holistic thinking are the first step in decarbonization of the water sector and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the water sector is gaining momentum in the decarbonization conversation. 

Within Imagine H2O’s portfolio alone, there are 32 companies working on the water-energy nexus. Learn more about how each company is tackling decarbonization of the water sector by clicking their names below:

Looking Forward

The tables are turning and the water sector is gaining momentum in the decarbonization conversation. A holistic approach to decarbonization includes not only carbon emissions from the obvious players (transportation and the built environment, cough cough), but also water as an essential pillar in the conversation. 

If Imagine H2O was leading the draft of carbon emitters, we’d tag water as the underdog who has the most potential for impact. We’ve been warming up the bench for too long.