ince implementing more than 200 "treasure hunts" for energy cost savings at General Electric’s most power-hungry facilities, "We’re at about $160 million a year in energy savings," says Jeff Fulgham, chief sustainability officer (CSO) and "ecomagination" leader for GE Power & Water.
The hunts target sources of energy waste involving electricity, natural gas, water, wastewater, compressed air and steam. The lessons learned prompted GE and the Environmental Defense Fund to begin collaborating in the summer of 2010 to share best practices externally at select sites.
As the GE division’s name implies — and experience constantly reiterates — water and power are inextricably linked: Replacing an old high-energy cast-iron water pump with high-efficiency pumps at one upstate New York facility near Albany has dramatically reduced what was $100,000 in annual pumping costs, says Fulgham. All told, he says, water consumption at GE is down by roughly 35 percent, or "about 4 billion gallons a year knocked out." At the end of 2009, he says, "we had gone from almost 15 billion gallons [in 2006] to 10.7 billion."
The savings derived primarily from the company’s 100 biggest water users, those that use 15 million gallons or more per year. Fulgham’s purview, however, could be said to extend across the company’s 7,000-plus rooftops around the world, "everything from Universal water parks to aircraft engines to ‘30 Rock,’ " he says.
Metrics in Action
The first part of establishing a new water use metric is baseline measurement. "One challenge is [when] we don’t even know how much water we use," says Fulgham. GE has been able to adapt its Web-based energy monitoring system to monitor water and wastewater usage. Self-developed tools help too: GE Sensing Ultrasonic flow meters helped the company establish that its original 2006 baseline water use figure for its biggest water-guzzling site had underestimated the flow by 2.2 billion gallons. In 2009 the company conducted "kaizen blitz water reduction events" at three facilities, followed by six blitzes in 2010, all involving multidisciplinary teams. Typically the launch pad for savings is the HVAC system.
"We really look holistically, from inlet to outlet, and rethink how we could do this more efficiently," says Fulgham of the three-day events, which are run from Sundays through Tuesdays in order to observe the facility at all points of its daily cycles. "Our first meetings are with the facilities folks. What are the trends? What are the energy and water hogs? Are there additives along the way? Are there ways we can rethink what ends up in the water supply?"
Once opportunities for savings are identified, a Top 10 list and schedule is developed, to be executed by the facilities team over a time frame that might range from less than six months to two years or longer, tracking ROI all along the way.
What’s It Worth to You?
Assigning value to water is on others’ minds too.
A new study by Rebecca Moore, an assistant professor in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia, evaluated water quantity and quality as one of six "ecosystem services" that forests provide. After evaluating 864 possible combinations of characteristics that might describe Georgia’s 22 million acres of private forests, her study found that water regulation and supply could be valued as high as $8,196 (2009 dollars) per acre per year in urban and suburban forested wetlands, without even taking into account such hard-to-quantify properties as erosion control and groundwater recharge.
"Infrastructure 2010: An Investment Imperative," a report released in April 2010 by the Urban Land Institute and Ernst & Young, noted that the U.S. has the highest water footprint in the world, using nearly 656,000 gallons per capita annually, "greatly outstripping far more populous China, which uses less than 186,000 gallons per capita annually."
The report evaluated 14 major U.S. cities, finding that all but three — Minneapolis/St. Paul, Philadelphia, and Atlanta — have specific conservation programs in place. "However, each of the areas also faces numerous challenges including old pipes, uncertain water supply and struggles with regional cooperation." The report looked to Australia as a model for water conservation, stormwater capture, and recycling, as well as more condensed land development practices. Residents pay $3.87 per cubic meter for water in Sydney; in Los Angeles, they pay $2.21.
Have the challenges involving this notoriously under-valued commodity caught the attention of corporate executives? Fulgham says they have.
"It’s become a C-suite discussion, finally," says the 30-year industry veteran, citing a meeting the day before with a major utility which has put a senior vice president in charge of a broad water sustainability project. "Long term, they know it’s something that keeps them in business for decades. It’s no longer a chemist at a plant making decisions. It’s an executive."
He says he’s seen awareness and value placed on water rise exponentially, even if the price hasn’t yet followed suit: "Forward-thinking companies are realizing they may not see a price increase today, but they know it’s coming."
Broadly speaking, the water factor is part of a larger green focus that makes sense, even based on energy ROI alone, says Fulgham, citing a GE project in Schenectady, N.Y. Add in reputational risks, quality risks and labor costs attached to old facilities and old practices, and you’re soon talking about both value and values. "People are finally realizing that it’s a big deal," he says.
Fulgham brings equal parts engineering and marketing experience to his role as CSO, which helps him deal with both internal GE goals and products and external clients, which now number approximately 50,000 around the world. Another aspect of his job involves thought leadership and sustainable solutions for communities, including those in dire need of water. The work takes him to both operational sites of GE and its clients and to such policy-making outposts as D.C., Brussels and Adelaide.
"I was probably in the office two or three days a month in the fourth quarter," he says, and his annual calendar includes around 40 conferences. Among the efforts he’s been involved with in Washington was a section of proposed energy legislation sponsored by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) that would feature up to a 30-percent tax credit for installing water saving technology or investing in water reuse in an industrial process context, as long as there was also an associated net energy savings. "The Advanced Energy Tax Incentives Act of 2010" was referred to the Senate Finance Committee in fall 2010 and failed to move through the lame duck session. Sen. Bingaman expected to introduce new comprehensive energy legislation in February, though it was unknown at press time whether the water provisions would be part of it.
"There would be different levels of tax credit depending on water reduction and the energy reduction associated with it," Fulgham says of those provisions. "We still feel like it has a good chance to go through in 2012."
GE is also working with the EPA’s main water laboratory in Cincinnati, the U.S. Small Business Administration, Cincinnati USA Regional chamber and more than 80 public- and private-sector stakeholders to form a Water Technology Innovation Cluster (WTIC) designed around water quality improvement, and backed by as much as $11.5 million in additional EPA and SBA funding. As a starting point, the WTIC will focus on technologies in the states of Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. Among other areas, the work at the EPA-anchored cluster is addressing some of the water quality concerns surrounding shale gas fractionation, which uses about 3 million gallons per well.
"Today they just deep-well inject it, or haul it around," says Fulgham of that wastewater. "We’re providing technology to reuse that water on site. We’re finding more and more that you can extract value from what is left behind, for such uses as road salt or chlor-alkali feedstock."
Cincinnati happens to be where GE conducted one of its kaizen blitzes, at its aircraft engine manufacturing complex in Evendale.
"We had an old lime softening process, probably 60 years old, located in a multi-story wooden structure," Fulgham explains. "It was very labor- and chemical-intensive, and there was inconsistent water quality coming out of the other end. It was a multimillion-dollar investment. One challenge is selling these projects internally. It had a nice ROI, but it took a lot of capital. We were able to get a much smaller footprint by shifting to reverse osmosis, and a total change in water quality and water consumed." Start to finish, the project took close to three years to complete, complicated in part by having to remove a 100-year-old brick building from the center of the complex.
An earlier success story unfolded at the company’s global nuclear fuel business headquarters in Wilmington, N.C., where the company found ways to reduce water used for cooling systems and thus reduce pressure on an already strained aquifer.
"We were able to take wastewater effluent from that plant and run it through a membrane bioreactor," he says, which provides filtration and enhances the biological process. "You get a really high quality wastewater effluent, a nice wastewater treatment plant, lower volume and higher purity discharge, and a great source of water to reuse," he says. The nine-month project led to roughly 25 million gallons a year in water use reduction.
The company is also finding value in low-volume pilot projects focused on extracting valuable components from the wastewater streams at one U.S. plant and another in Hungary.
"There is always a certain amount of chemical in the wastewater stream," says Fulgham, which can lead to taking two hits: "You sometimes pay for that from a discharge standpoint, and second, it’s an expensive chemical going down the drain."
So, in a picture-perfect example of lifecycle thinking, GE is using its own membrane technology to extract those chemicals from the manufacturing process for the membranes themselves, then purifying those chemicals for reuse.
Who’s Emerging? Who’s Already There?
Fulgham says thinking about sustainable construction from the beginning at new plants in Hungary and China, for example, is helping reduce the chances of a kaizen blitz later. But there’s definitely a blitz of real sustainability unfolding in China, all skeptics aside.
"Particularly in emerging markets, such as China, they already get it," he says. "I think China gets a really bad rap based on looking in the rearview mirror versus out the front window. It’s amazing how fast the Chinese government’s ability is to get stuff done, period. From many angles, China is way ahead of the rest of the world."
He cites what the People’s Republic aims to do with water rights trading in the Yellow River basin, with a goal of 100-percent water reuse by 2013 in Beijing and north, as well as massive plans for a north-south water pipeline, and discussions about the increasingly affordable option of desalination. "They get the connection between potential economic constraints, particularly in the north. They’re not waiting for somebody to go jam it on them. They get what you have to do in order to survive. I’ve been really impressed with what we’re seeing in China."
Among the best industrial examples is the multifaceted approach by one of China’s largest polyvinyl chloride and caustic soda producers, Elion Chemical Industry Co. Ltd. in Erdos City, Inner Mongolia, which will virtually eliminate its wastewater discharge to the Yellow River using an advanced water reuse and wastewater evaporation system from GE. The system will allow the recycling of some 90 percent of the Elion’s wastewater, or 1.1 billion gallons per year.
GE’s own facility investments in the sector have included a new China Technology Center of Excellence for Water Reuse and a new manufacturing plant in Wuxi.
"Bottom line, they’re making huge strides in policy and technology, which really started in the ‘90s," says Fulgham. "They focused on fewer, larger power plants in order to concentrate their water regulation and enforcement. It’s easier to manage in fewer sites. A lot of the older sites are just being mothballed. Also, wind and solar are booming. And they’re looking to pre-clean coal before it’s burned."
Fulgham wishes the same could be said of India, where there truly might be an opportunity to "leapfrog" from obsolete levels of technology and resource management to a 21st century model.
"India is the kind of place we’re trying to work that," he says. "They need 60,000 megawatts of new power, and roughly 85 percent of their wastewater is untreated." Sometimes geography plays in favor of solving both problems, with the possibility of solving wastewater challenges right next door to power plants, for instance. But political obstacles exist. There are also opportunities to employ smaller water reuse and irrigation systems to serve areas of, say, 1,000 homes. "There are a lot of ways to think about how communities in these emerging markets will be built," he says.
He adds one more troubling thought to the mix: the trade-off of carbon for water.
"Almost every low-carbon operation we’re looking at is more water-intensive," he says. "With geothermal, particularly, it takes eight to 10 times more water to generate a megawatt. Fuel cells are water-intensive when you look at the footprint. Biofuels in general, such as sugar-based ethanol, are very water-intensive. China is making a decision to put in cooling towers versus dry cooling, because to them the energy penalty is worse than the water penalty."
Such dilemmas await the rest of the world too.
"These are interesting decisions we’re going to make."