Global demand increasing for bi-sector expertise

It might seem at first glance that energy and water don’t mix—but as sectors of the economy, the two are actually quite closely related, and Wisconsin’s strength in both means the state is positioned to leverage this synergy for technological innovation to solve global challenges.

Wisconsin’s cluster development organizations for the two sectors—The Water Council and the Mid-west Energy Research Consortium (M-WERC)—are collaborating on a new initiative to foster collaboration among Wisconsin companies across sector boundaries, allowing for more productive engagement in the area known as the “energy-water nexus”—the intersection of the water technology and energy, power and controls sectors.

A joint project team and steering committee that includes representatives from the two organizations and key Wisconsin companies from each sector has already published a Strategic Roadmap on the Energy-Water Nexus that assesses the current size and potential of this overlapping market and sets priorities for its further development.

Opportunity abounds

“On a worldwide basis, the largest category for water use is electric power generation,” the roadmap document notes. “Similarly, the largest industrial demand for electricity is water extraction and distribution.”

As a share of total global commerce, the energy-water nexus is currently valued at $241 billion, and is expected to double in size by 2025.

“The energy-water nexus market is poised for rapid and disruptive growth in the coming years,” says Dean Amhaus, president and CEO of The Water Council.  “This report and our unique view of this boundary-crossing industry were shaped by a series of five workshops attracting over 400 members of M-WERC and The Water Council over 12 months.”

Another key partner in the initiative is the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which noted in a recent report that “the emerging nexus between energy and water is of critical importance to the region, the state and the larger global economy.” The study identified energy, health and water as areas where the university has been particularly successful in fueling innovation and economic growth, through resources such as the Center for Sustainable Electrical Energy Systems, cutting-edge labs for research on energy storage recently created with funding from Johnson Controls, and state-of-the-art facilities at the School of Freshwater Sciences.

“Wisconsin is a leader in energy and water innovations,” adds Elizabeth Thelen, The Water Council’s director of entrepreneurship and talent, and project leader for the energy-water nexus roadmap. “We need to embrace, leverage and market these assets across the U.S., North America and the globe. There are enormous innovation and growth possibilities for our small and midsize companies to strategically drive into new markets.”

Current priorities of the new M-WERC Energy-Water Nexus (EWN) Working Groups include creating awareness of the initiative and the energy-water nexus’s potential; developing and supporting collaborative partnerships; drawing more companies to get involved with the initiative and encouraging them to pursue technologies and innovations in this area; and developing funding models and programs to support companies’ work in this area.

Sustainability leadership

In addition to having companies that are world leaders within the water technology and energy, power and control sectors, Wisconsin is also home to companies that are leaders in technologies that span sector boundaries, says Alan Perlstein, executive director and CEO of M-WERC.

“Our region has key cross-cutting technologies that are driver engines for both water technology and energy, power and control, but the real driver is how we use these cross-cutting technologies to make ourselves more sustainable in manufacturing, and position the region for economic growth by becoming more competitive,” says Perlstein.

For example, the variable frequency drives and smart meters manufactured by New Berlin-based ABB Inc. are used to improve efficiency in both the water and energy sectors, allowing public utilities and private companies alike to reduce energy consumption, minimizing waste and costs. ABB is also developing sophisticated data aggregation and analysis methods to help companies and utilities analyze the wealth of data collected by sensors and use it to optimize performance. (Incidentally, these types of technologies are also crucial to increasing productivity for manufacturers of all types—a focus of the Transformational Productivity Initiative, also featured in this issue.)

“Without question, this initiative is helping us to think about the relationship between water and energy as we develop solutions for the segment considering their interdependencies,” says H.J. Dewes, water and wastewater segment manager for ABB’s Robotics and Motion Division and a member of the energy-water nexus industry roadmap steering committee.

Hartland-based Watertronics also manufactures efficiency-maximizing variable frequency drives, as well as rainwater harvesting systems that reduce property owners’ dependency on city water or well water supply and reduce stormwater runoff. “As both water and energy evolve and a demand for each grows, Watertronics will continue to strive to develop products and systems that use both more efficiently,” says Mike Warren, product manager for SkyHarvester, the water harvesting technology. “The water efficiency category identified by the report represents a good opportunity for Watertronics rainwater harvesting product line, where we have the opportunity to use rainwater for high-water-usage applications on commercial buildings that do not require purified city drinking water to operate.”

New players

Cadens, based in the Global Water Center, utilizes cutting-edge 3D printing technology to create affordable, custom water turbines to generate hydroelectric power at locations around the country that are often overlooked due to size or cost constraints.

“Of all energy sources globally, hydropower has the lowest cost over time and is the renewable energy source with the greatest potential,” says Cadens partner Randal Mueller. “Cadens’ mission is to make clean energy from water power the lowest installed capital cost technology compared to all electricity sources.” Its products utilize advanced materials and computational fluid dynamics toward this goal.

ICONAC—another startup that, like Cadens, is a graduate of both The Water Council’s BREW accelerator and M-WERC’s WERCBench Labs program—uses proprietary technology to improve the efficiency of water systems. ““The energy-water nexus roadmap identified complementary technologies and companies in pipe repair and water system controls with whom there is the potential to create collaborative solutions,” says ICONAC founder and CEO Harrison Richarz. “It has also brought to our attention additional markets beyond drinking water, such as district heating and cooling systems, which also have water- or steam-filled pipe networks where our technology could be of benefit.”

Historic strength, future vision

In some cases, the companies leading the way in this initiative have been working at the intersection of energy and water for many years. “A. O. Smith has always considered itself at the cutting edge of high-efficiency products, whether it be water and space heaters that use less energy, or water treatment products that waste less water,” says Stephen Memory, director of thermal and materials for the Milwaukee-based company. “As a company, we are already heavily invested in developing and manufacturing high-efficiency energy and water products, and a few of the technologies mentioned as most promising in the report, such as sensors, controls, coatings and membranes, are areas where we are already placing significant focus. Anything that helps to raise awareness and importance of these technologies is a good thing.”

Another iconic Wisconsin company, Kohler, is also not new to the energy-water nexus. In 1920, a lack of electricity service in rural Wisconsin was limiting residents’ ability to install modern indoor plumbing, and Kohler began manufacturing and marketing small power generators to farmers to enable its plumbing products to reach more homes. Today, Kohler industrial generators supply primary and backup electricity for water pumping and treatment systems all over the world. Its water-saving plumbing products are used to reduce water consumption all across the world—“The most effective way to save the energy embedded in a gallon of water is not to use it in the first place,” says Michael Luettgen, senior principal engineer for applied technology with Kohler, and a member of the energy-water nexus working group.

The roadmap document’s recommendations “confirm that the direction of our industry to reduce water consumption is the right strategy,” says Luettgen. By encouraging heightened investment and collaboration, he says, the initiative “provides Wisconsin with a unique opportunity to create real value for a world that needs solutions.”

Veolia, a Paris-based multinational company with facilities in Wisconsin, operates energy production and water treatment facilities around the globe, and has recognized the intersection of water and energy for decades. As one example in Wisconsin, Veolia utilizes a combined heat and power process on behalf of its client, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District (MMSD), to produce electricity with turbines and engine generators, where the “waste heat” is beneficially reused to dry biosolids and provide process and building heat.

More recently, together with MMSD, Veolia has optimized the beneficial reuse of biogas as well as implemented the use of landfill gas, substituting these gases for natural gas in the combined heat and power process.  Since less water is required for the production of landfill gas vs. the production of natural gas, the landfill gas-powered combined heat and power is a prime example of the water-energy nexus providing opportunities to conserve both energy and water.

Wisconsin’s initiative is unique in that there’s no shortage of water or energy here—a factor that typically drives innovation in these fields, says David Garman, associate vice chancellor for water technology research and development at the School of Freshwater Sciences and The Water Council’s chief technology officer.

“Clean water and process water are so tied to energy that reductions and optimization in water delivery and use with the associated energy savings can make Wisconsin the leader in the water-energy nexus even though we are in a water-rich area,” says Garman, who co-chairs the energy-water nexus working group with Stephen Memory of A.O. Smith.

The initiative is already being held up as a model by leaders from both industries, as well as economic development professionals, around the country.

“Having M-WERC and The Water Council collaborating on the energy-water nexus roadmap enhances connectivity across their memberships and accelerates local, regional, national and global opportunities in this space,” says Mueller, of Cadens. “This initiative leverages Wisconsin’s strengths, strong state support for water-focused technology, and a leading electric drive and generator industry—all supported by a framework of world-leading higher-education institutions in these fields.”