John Willis, Vice President of Brown and Caldwell, has had more than three decades of experience in Wastewater management. As a Vice President, John has a great experience on providing solutions to biosolids and renewable energy treatments. His achievements include designing the country’s first Class A thermophilic anaerobic digestion facility. In an interview with Utilities Tech Outlook John Willis discusses about the field of wastewater management and its developments.
What are all the challenges that are existing in the landscape of waste water management?
I think, there is so much we could do on resource recovery, renewable energy, conservation and almost all of the systems, which exists in the landscape. If we can work on them, we will generate new revenue and save cost. So, we need to figure out a decision making structure to get this done.
And, There is a lot of discussion going on about conserving power, reducing the greenhouse gases and saving money, but if it intrudes our compliance- it is a big waste. Because trying something that doesn't work as promised might put the utility director in trouble. But if the commission is going to be revealed from a group with the potential risk to fail, officials might suggest to back out from the process.
Ironically, it takes one person to kill something, and consensus of 50 people to do something. So, there are structural difficulties on the utilities perception among the regulatory side.
Is there a role for technology or anything in the term of feedback from other research sources helped you?
I think we have, for example, if a value structure proficiency were mandated, something like carbon tax would be authorized. If you are going to spend a little bit more on something risky, how do you mitigate that risk?
Right now, carbon-di-oxide in British Columbia is trading for 50$-per metric ton. But Metro Vancouver extended its requirement to a 150$-metric ton, as they thought the fixed quantity of carbon-di-oxide was short-lived and would never reach the mandate. Though operations, cost savings, revenue source may generate only to the amount of 50$- metric ton, it reasons out the scale that furthering the requirement may do the right thing.
We see water as a good example with the implementation of the digestion and biosolids program. They started from wind stabilization by sending 30-75 trucks of digested biosolids a day, and they also produce about 10 MW of power from the digestors. And all of that effort saves them around 25 million dollars a year in power, avoided biosolids, bind application costs, and that does a good job of paying for the 450 million dollars investment. Either it gets paid off, were you looking at the money or simple payback, then it will still be running. So when you look at the long term benefit of that project, it is good, yet there was not one of those operating in North America when they decided to do it, so that level of risk is pretty crazy, they probably invested 50-75 million dollars in mitigating risk. From the technological perspective, wastewater- in my mind, is the hardest industry in the world to come in with a better widget and sell it. When you look at the adaptation curve for candy, which is the process of how they implemented distilled water. Candy first started at marketing in this country in the mid-90s, and the first facility they ever got off running was brought online in 2015. And now I am betting there are at least 10-15 projects that are being under design and construction in the United States using the same process, but it all just from a perspective of how heavy the list is to justify the initial investment.
So what we do right now for renewable energy, what I would call 'state of the art- wastewater plant. It is good if we use primary clarifiers to get rid of half of the waste by gravity, which is free. Then, we have to draw a lot of energy to convert soluble pollutants into waste-activated swatches and then digest those two different swatches. Typically, we can produce about a third of the power plant uses to operate. So what I think is to see if we can take that digestor that produces all that renewable energy and put it either in place of the primary clarifier or in front of the primary clarifier and see if we can't anaerobically digest all of the sewage. 80% of the people said,- 'We can't do that, wastewater is too scrawny, it doesn't have enough garbage in it'. I would say, 'Ok, we can figure out how to do that', because there are ways to get around it, but we need to invest a lot of scales in it. So, if anaerobic treatment of sewage could be made to work,-it's not going to be 10 or 20% better, it would double the biogas production, compared to a digestor, and cut the power consumption in half when you have to do the swatch process. And that means we could net power the plants with the biogas and explore power, even if we have low-size equipment. So I think with research or with demonstration projects, we should be advancing more because if it turns out that I could take 2% of the U. S. power consumption for wastewater treatment and make that a net positive, that is where we got to adopt. I think we could adopt it without investment. Because I think these projects would pay for themselves once we figure out precisely what you have to do, where, on what kind of ways.
Would you like to give a piece of advice for the CIO community as to how should they approach the Wastewater management?
I think we need people to continue to be creative and try to advance the industry. There are people who are trying to make things better. So I would encourage everybody to keep trying harder because we need to change the way we do business as usual, and we are on a fairly steep curve, but we are on a steep learning curve that does not translate to a steep transformation curve. So if you are breaking into the industry, try and experiment with things, see where you can find clients who embrace new ideas.
And they are probably led by people who have had a job for 20 years, but there are a few lanes that we have to drive down to demonstrate these things work. So the clients who don't have that kind of appetite can see two or three other places about their size. So I think we need to be prepared for it, but we have to start working on it in as many ways as possible.
Jaša Žižek Fuis, Product Manager, Wastewater Treatment & Andreja Peternelj, Wastewater Treatment Development Manager, Treatment Plant & Tomaž Ružič, Product Manager, DISNet WS - Water systems, Petrol d.d., Ljubljana, Petrol Group