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Essential Guide: How can water utilities reach Net Zero targets?

Thursday, 1 February 2024

Across the UK, a voluntary target has been set for utilities to achieve 'Net Zero' by 2030. While some utilities are confidently setting early targets for 2027, others have faced setbacks in meeting the 2030 deadline. In this essential guide we explore the origins of the Net Zero target and look at how utilities can achieve it.

Why did the Net Zero target for water utilities start?

In November 2020, the UK water industry took a significant step by launching the Net Zero target for water utilities. This ambitious plan, known as the Net Zero 2030 Routemap, is a groundbreaking commitment across the entire sector to achieve a net zero water supply for customers by 2030. The main drive behind this initiative is to tackle climate change and play a part in the worldwide effort to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.

Water companies, collectively responsible for almost a third of UK industrial and waste process emissions, have recognised their significant impact on the environment. The sector aims to proactively play a role in mitigating climate change by aligning with the UK Government's target of achieving net zero by 2050. However, the water industry's commitment goes a step further, as it sets a more ambitious goal of reaching net zero two decades ahead of the government's legally binding target.

The initiative acknowledges that water companies, being essential providers of a vital natural resource to over 26 million households and businesses daily, must take responsibility for their environmental impact. By committing to net zero, the industry aims to lead by example and demonstrate its dedication to a green and resilient recovery for society, the economy, and the environment.

This sector-wide commitment also anticipates a reduction of 10 million tonnes in greenhouse gas emissions by uniting water companies in a collaborative effort. The Net Zero 2030 Routemap provides a 10-point plan for decarbonisation, outlining specific recommendations for government and regulators. 

The plan seeks to balance the reduction of emissions with measures that protect customer bills, minimise investment costs and contribute to the economic recovery by fostering green skills and nature-based solutions.


What does achieving Net Zero mean for water utilities?

Achieving Net Zero for water utilities involves a comprehensive approach to minimise carbon emissions across the entire water supply chain. This includes reducing energy consumption, adopting sustainable practices and investing in technologies that promote environmental responsibility. Attaining Net Zero status signifies a commitment to sustainability, environmental stewardship and a shift towards more eco-friendly operations.

The Routemap offers a 10-point plan for decarbonisation including recommendations for government and regulators that will help protect customer bills and keep investment costs down while supporting the development of green skills and nature-based solutions as part of the economic recovery.

“We don’t have all the answers, and we can’t do it alone,” said Christine McGourty, Water UK chief executive when the routemap was launched.

“But with the support of government, regulators and the supply chain, we believe we can deliver a net zero water supply for customers that also helps build the green skills and solutions needed to protect the environment for generations to come.”


Nitrous Oxide challenges in the pursuit of Net Zero

Despite the noble intentions, water utilities face numerous challenges on their path to Net Zero. One significant hurdle is Nitrous Oxide (N2O) emissions, a potent greenhouse gas produced during wastewater treatment processes. Containing and mitigating Nitrous Oxide emissions becomes paramount in achieving Net Zero targets.

Nitrous Oxide, a by-product of microbial processes in wastewater treatment, poses a considerable challenge in the journey towards Net Zero. It is crucial for utilities to monitor and manage Nitrous Oxide emissions effectively. This involves implementing advanced technologies and practices to capture and reduce N2O, ensuring that the overall carbon footprint is minimised.

Monitoring N2O emissions requires sophisticated technology and continuous data collection, as these emissions can fluctuate both spatially and temporally. Additionally, the diverse processes involved in wastewater treatment, each with its unique conditions, further complicate the task of accurately quantifying N2O emissions. As a result, water companies face the challenge of implementing reliable monitoring systems that provide real-time data to track and understand the dynamics of N2O production.

Mitigating N2O emissions is equally challenging. Implementing effective strategies to reduce or capture N2O requires a comprehensive understanding of the microbial processes responsible for its generation. 

Water companies must invest in advanced technologies and treatment methods that target specific stages of wastewater treatment where N2O is produced. Balancing the need for efficient treatment processes with the imperative to reduce N2O emissions adds an extra layer of complexity to the overall challenge.

Collaboration among water utilities, regulatory bodies, and researchers is essential to developing and implementing effective mitigation strategies for N2O, ensuring progress towards Net Zero targets while maintaining the efficacy of wastewater treatment processes.

Towards the end of last year, the ‘Net Zero Partnership’ was established by utilities spanning the UK, Denmark and Australia. Aarhus Vand, Melbourne Water and Severn Trent joined forces with the aim to collectively reduce carbon emissions by one million tonnes annually.


Innovations driving the push to Net Zero

The push towards Net Zero has spurred a wave of innovations in solutions targeting water utilities. From wastewater treatment technologies to energy-efficient processes, utilities are embracing cutting-edge solutions to achieve their sustainability goals. Technologies such as waste-to-value biogas and other renewable energy sources are becoming integral components of the utilities' transition towards Net Zero. 

An Aquatech Online article covered 30 technologies helping to reach Net Zero produced by Isle Utilities. Notable technologies in the article included QLM's TDLidar Gas Sensor, a groundbreaking gas sensor utilising single-photon LiDAR technology for continuous autonomous industrial gas monitoring. This lightweight device provides real-time information on gas emissions and leaks, allowing site operators to plan and implement reduction strategies effectively.

Meanwhile, VorTech's high-efficiency aerator, an easy-to-use solution for oxygen transfer and mixing was also mentioned. Notably, up to 20 per cent of the power input is recovered, enhancing overall energy efficiency. The system features simultaneous dissolved oxygen monitoring and automatic power cutoff upon reaching target levels.

Other examples included I-PHYC's Algal Reactor, which presents a novel biological system for nutrient removal, COD reduction, and pollutant removal. The algae in the reactor consume CO2 for growth, offering a sustainable solution with potential monetization opportunities for the produced algal biomass.


Case Studies: Progress and reporting

Some utilities are making commendable progress towards Net Zero and are actively reporting their achievements.

Scottish Water, for instance, has implemented waste-to-value biogas initiatives, propelling it ahead in its Net Zero journey. Delivering more than 1.5 million cubic metres per day and removing more than one million cubic metres of wastewater resulted in 217,000 tonnes of carbon emitted during 2022/23.

Scottish Water started recording greenhouse gas reductions associated with its activities in 2006/07 when 462,000 tonnes of carbon were emitted every year.  The utility has reportedly reduced that by almost a quarter of a million tonnes of carbon annually. During the past 12 months, there was an in-year reduction of 14,000 tonnes. 

Gordon Reid, Scottish Water’s Net Zero general manager, says the results are “pleasing”. 

“The key to success is understanding what works and scaling that up at speed. There will be challenges ahead but by being bold and innovative we can remain on track to deliver for our customers and for the environment,” he says.

Thames Water on the other hand says it was forced to scrap its 2030 NET Zero plans amid financial difficulties. 

In an article with The Telegraph, the company said it had dumped its climate target to prioritise tackling sewage issues.

A Thames Water spokeswoman said the decision followed “significant changes to the original findings and assumptions about carbon emissions used by the water sector”.

“We’ve also listened to customers and communities we serve and while they’re supportive of our plans to reduce our carbon emissions, customers have told us tackling sewer flooding and reducing sewage discharges should be a priority in our next business plan.”

Fully on track to Net Zero: Anglian Water

Meanwhile Anglian Water says it is “fully on track” to generate 45 per cent of its energy from its own renewable sources by 2025 and become a fully net zero carbon business by 2030.

The utility has been managing and reducing emissions by installing monitoring equipment at four large Anglian Water sites. It has also been decarbonising its electricity supply, vehicle fleet, as well as focusing on procuring green electricity and removing and or offsetting its residual emissions by planting 50 hectares of woodland on Anglian Water sites. This includes exploring nature-based opportunities using wetlands, marshes and grasslands and working with landowners to develop land management schemes that avoid and remove emissions.

For example, its first wetland treatment site at Ingoldisthorpe created in partnership with the Norfolk Rivers Trust works as a natural treatment plant for millions of litres of water a day. Used but treated water passes through the wetland to be further filtered and cleaned by the wetland plants before it’s returned to the River Ingol.

This additional, natural filtering process further improves the quality of water being returned to the river, benefiting the whole of the river, which is a spring-fed chalk stream. Aside from having a practical purpose, the wetland is a huge biodiversity asset attracting breeding birds, amphibians, bats, water voles to the local environment. 

Anglian Water said it is also using wastewater as ac source of heat and electricity to help run its treatment works.

Anglian Water CEO Peter Simpson says: “Over a decade ago we had come to the realisation that we had a clear duty to tackle our emissions - not just because the water sector is generally one of the most power hungry, but because the rural nature and flat landscape of our region means we need even more energy than most to pump water to where it is needed.”

International lessons 

Looking beyond national borders, there are valuable lessons to be learned from international players in the water utilities sector. Portugal, with its Aguas de Portugal 2030 Energy Neutral Plans, serves as an exemplary case. 

Portugal’s energy and climate policies aim to reach carbon neutrality primarily through broad electrification of energy demand and a rapid expansion of renewable electricity generation, along with increased energy efficiency. These measures are backed by a strong focus on reducing dependency on energy imports and maintaining affordable access to energy. In the longer term, Portugal is aiming for hydrogen to play a major role in achieving carbon neutrality.

Águas do Algarve, SA, (AdA) has invested significantly in the construction of renewable energy power stations, with an aim to reduce the company´s dependence on energy from the public utility grid and achieve energy neutrality in its operations.

The goal is to curtail energy consumption in vital sectors such as water supply and wastewater treatment while significantly bolstering the generation of renewable energy.

While Portugal’s climate and energy goals still face notable challenges, an International Energy Agency policy review welcomes steps the government is taking to address these challenges and its forward thinking attitude to Net Zero. 


The future 

As UK utilities navigate the challenging waters of achieving Net Zero targets, it is evident that the journey requires a multifaceted approach. From addressing Nitrous Oxide emissions to embracing innovative technologies, utilities must remain committed to sustainable practices. 

By learning from successful case studies, both domestically and internationally, and fostering collaboration within the industry, UK utilities can collectively work towards a greener, more sustainable future.