Inspired by Innovation

weftec_2103_floor.jpgIt has been more than three years since the participants in The Johnson Foundation’s Freshwater Summit issued its Freshwater Call to Action, asking leaders from all sectors of society to address the challenges facing the United States’ freshwater resources. Paging back through the document from today’s vantage, it seems more prescient than ever.

One of the themes that appears over and over again in the Call to Action is “innovation” as a way toward solving problems like water shortage, polluted rivers, increased flood damage, dropping water tables, etc. Innovation comes in many wrappings: new policies, alternative governance structures, rate structures that reward sustainable actions, cross-sector partnerships, and of course technological innovation. The Water Environment Federation (WEF), one of the Foundation’s key partners in creating and following through on the Call to Action, has been a leader in the water industry for 85 years and serves as a catalyst for driving innovation, particularly in wastewater treatment. So naturally, in my own search for innovation, I headed south to Chicago in search of WEFTEC 2013.

I’ve been hearing about WEFTEC, the annual conference and tradeshow that WEF hosts each fall for the water industry, for years. This year’s attendance hit a record 22,500. Needless to say, it has a different feel than the meetings we host here at Wingspread! The exhibit floor itself was big enough that I lost count of how many football fields could have fit inside. Fortunately there was an app, complete with navigation tools, to help attendees chart their course through the displays and meeting rooms. One of my more visceral takeaways was the magnitude of the industry. If the miles of pipe and tons of machinery on display are any indication of the vested interests in the status quo, we’ve got a daunting task ahead. But the encouraging news is that the attention was on innovation, and there was plenty of it to be had. Here are a few highlights from my tour:

  • On Monday morning, Chicago Mayor Emanuel announced his Green Stormwater Infrastructure Strategy, $50 million over five years for green infrastructure.  It looks like he’s going to be vying with Philadelphia’s Mayor Michael Nutter, Los Angeles’ Mayor Eric Garcetti and others to become the nation’s “bluest” mayor. This is the kind of competition where everyone wins.
  • There was a lot of attention given to Ostara, a company with a revolutionary process to recover phosphorus from the waste stream. This is a win-win opportunity because it not only results in cleaner water, but it also eliminates struvite weftec_2013_struvite.jpgfrom building up inside of pipes, a costly maintenance problem. Ostara goes beyond the basic technology with its interesting business model. Rather than leaving the utility to have to sell the resulting fertilizer, Ostara purchases it from the utility, and then does the branding, marketing and re-selling itself, allowing it to develop economies of scale that would be impossible for an individual utility. Their signature operation is in Portland, Ore., but the big news this year at WEFTEC was the announcement that Ostara has signed an agreement with Chicago’s MWRD which will make Chicago the world’s largest nutrient recovery operation.  Interestingly, Chicago has no legal obligation to lower its phosphorus limits.  From what David St. Pierre, its general manager, told me, he’s taking this step because he and his board want to be out front on this.
  • Another compelling company I encountered was the Pasteurization Technology Group (catchy name, I know).  Greg Ryan, the CEO and co-founder, explained that the basic idea of his technology is that it takes waste heat from the methane-to-electricity or other combustion process and uses it to heat the partially treated sewage sufficiently to kill the bacteria and viruses.  In other words, it disinfects sewage without using additional energy and eliminates the chlorination/dechlorination process, which is both toxic and expensive.  PTG’s technology is being used in a few places in California, but it seems like a no-brainer for other applications and is a good fit with WEF’s Energy Roadmap, an initiative to help wastewater treatment plants reduce their energy use.
  • Hank Reinhoudt of Voltea presented their technology for removing salt or other ions from water using an alternating polarity process.  It’s a lot cheaper and uses less energy than standard membrane processes, but is best applied to brackish water (including produced water from most oil and gas operations).  In theory it could also be used for communities like Waukesha, Wis., which have radium-tainted water.
  • The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been leading the way for sanitation in unsewered areas by challenging us to reimagine and reinvent how toilets and sanitation can work. Though the effort is aimed at helping those who live weftec_2013_the_reinvented_toilet.jpgin areas with limited access to water, sewers and energy, I think that by commercializing the “reinvented toilet” and innovative ways of processing the contents of these toilets, the Gates Foundation’s work will eventually be able to inform sustainable infrastructure decisions and off-grid sanitation opportunities in the developed world.

I couldn’t help but be infected by the enthusiasm of the entrepreneurs and inventions I saw at WEFTEC. The list above is just the beginning. In addition to other new technical innovations, I talked to people like Scott Bryan of Imagine H2O who are helping small inventors get the capital they need to enter this daunting market, and people like Marina Leight of Governing Magazine who are looking for ways to bring innovation to municipal leaders through new initiatives like FutureStructure. I left with reinforcement of my prejudice that leadership is fundamental to the change we need to see. Greg Ryan of PTG was representative of what I heard from others: The primary barrier to adoption of the innovative technologies that we need for long-term sustainability is a willingness for leaders to try something different. It’s really that simple when it comes down to it.

Next year WEFTEC will be in New Orleans, Sept 27 – Oct 1. I plan to be there, and I hope to see that today’s innovation is tomorrow’s standard practice.

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