Water expert Bilfinger Tebodin: ‘Industry doesn’t yet feel the urgency of water shortage’

May 02, 2021

Drinking water is abundant in the Netherlands. It seems self-evident that there is always water coming out of the tap, but the drought of recent years shows that this is not necessarily the case. ‘The industry is not sufficiently aware of what they use drinking water for and whether it is all needed for an industrial application.’

Michiel van der Meer, environmental manager with the water specialization at Bilfinger Tebodin calls water the blue gold. “Water is a solvent, catalyst, raw material, coolant and energy carrier for industry. All aspects are important in any industry, but certainly in the food industry.” Van der Meer also sees the obviousness of the presence and availability of water in the food industry. “This creates bottlenecks in today’s dry summers.”

Has the drought created urgency in the industry?

“The urgency is not yet there, despite the drought and the visible signs of climate change. There are two drivers when companies work on water reduction. Companies have a green vision or a green image and they want to maintain or expand that. These companies are consciously working on water reduction. The other category includes companies that are working on process improvements that result in water reduction. However, I still see few companies that want to reduce their existing water footprint with the motive of preventing drought.”

Is the lack of urgency because drinking water is very cheap?

“Yes, that is the main reason. Drinking water is cheap and obvious in the Netherlands. We are a water country. How can we possibly have a drinking water shortage? In the Netherlands, we are used to draining water as quickly as possible to keep our feet dry. That has now caused us to have to deal with drought. Because it is taken for granted that everyone has access to drinking water and it is also very cheap, investments to bring about drinking water reduction are hardly feasible from a financial point of view.”

How can companies become more aware of their drinking water intake?

“The first question in awareness is knowing how much water they are taking in and what they are using it for. At home, you have one water connection where you take in water, but you have no idea if it is used for the washing machine or for the dishwasher or shower. This is also true for businesses. They often don’t know what their water is used for either. There is also the question of whether they need drinking quality water for the production process. In my opinion, this is not always the case.”

Drinking water is cheap and obvious in the Netherlands”

What do you advise companies to do?

“An integrated approach with the entire business operations. Focus on awareness and turn the water transition into something positive. The government is also increasingly asking companies to demonstrate that they are aware of how they deal with water. For example, they have to present a drinking water reduction plan. This mainly concerns reducing the use of drinking water through more efficient business operations, the reuse of process water streams, or the use of rainwater. Clean rainwater can be used, for example, for flushing materials or the toilet. Sometimes there are simply no possibilities for reuse, but then a company knows that too. If there are possibilities, we look at the impact on business operations, planning, payback period, investment costs and operational costs, among other things.”

Tips for conscious water use

  1. 1. Know what you are using drinking water for and think carefully about reusing water.
  2. 2. Question the obviousness of drinking water.
  3. 3. Take an integrated approach and see what is possible with the companies in your immediate vicinity

Are they radical changes?

“For existing buildings it’s sometimes quite an intervention to, for example, create a buffer facility, lay pipes and design it efficiently. That sometimes costs a lot of money and time. And the payback time is long because there is no financial benefit because of the low price of drinking water. Companies must really want to have a green stamp and believe in the water issue. In new construction projects, it is easier to design an efficient production process with minimal use of potable water. Also, by then a separate sewer system is already implemented where rainwater and wastewater are separated. But for the existing situation this is different and more difficult. A simple example: look at any business park on Google Maps and see how many gray roofs there are where rainwater falls and flows off. Capturing that, using it and keeping it within your own facility makes all the difference.”

What opportunities are there for companies to reduce water?

“Smart handling of rinse water in cleaning operations is an important example. How can you reuse rinse water for another process? Or use slightly contaminated (process) water for the first rinse? In addition, it is important for the industry to question the obviousness of drinking water and whether it is necessary to use drinking water quality water for all processes.”

Where there is still little awareness for the water intake, is this less true for the effluent?

“Most questions from the government are about the outgoing flow: the effluent and its impact on surface water. How can you ensure that your effluent becomes cleaner? That is also an important question, because the surface water in the Netherlands is too dirty. We are not going to achieve the European targets we need to meet if we continue like this. By setting limits at the back end, you can also ensure that people are more aware of how they use water.”

What can we do with the effluent?

“We can purify effluent so that the quality is comparable to that of drinking water. The innovative techniques are there. However, I think that here in the Netherlands we are not yet ready to use treated effluent as a raw material. It’s mainly in our minds that we think it’s dirty, unpleasant or unhygienic. This is different in other parts of the world. They are happy with effluent.”

Integration with energy, that’s where I think a lot more can be done.

“The energy transition can go hand in hand with the water transition. Energy reduction is often easier and more tangible. If the setting of a pump is not properly regulated, that is an easy button to turn to save energy without any investment costs. With water, if is often a little more difficult. There are no easy buttons to turn and investment costs are often high. That is why at Bilfinger Tebodin we often tackle energy and water together. For example, we look at the reuse of heat in hot water. Reusing heat in water has a positive impact on energy consumption, but also means that you need less hot water. An integrated approach with multiple aspects can ensure that water reduction plans do become feasible.”

Are they radical changes?

“For existing buildings it’s sometimes quite an intervention to, for example, create a buffer facility, lay pipes and design it efficiently. That sometimes costs a lot of money and time. And the payback time is long because there is no financial benefit because of the low price of drinking water. Companies must really want to have a green stamp and believe in the water issue. In new construction projects, it is easier to design an efficient production process with minimal use of potable water. Also, by then a separate sewer system is already implemented where rainwater and wastewater are separated. But for the existing situation this is different and more difficult. A simple example: look at any business park on Google Maps and see how many gray roofs there are where rainwater falls and flows off. Capturing that, using it and keeping it within your own facility makes all the difference.”

Energy transition can go hand in hand with water transition

What opportunities are there for companies to reduce water?

“Smart handling of rinse water in cleaning operations is an important example. How can you reuse rinse water for another process? Or use slightly contaminated (process) water for the first rinse? In addition, it is important for the industry to question the obviousness of drinking water and whether it is necessary to use drinking water quality water for all processes.”

Where there is still little awareness for the water intake, is this less true for the effluent?

“Most questions from the government are about the outgoing flow: the effluent and its impact on surface water. How can you ensure that your effluent becomes cleaner? That is also an important question, because the surface water in the Netherlands is too dirty. We are not going to achieve the European targets we need to meet if we continue like this. By setting limits at the back end, you can also ensure that people are more aware of how they use water.”

What can we do with the effluent?

“We can purify effluent so that the quality is comparable to that of drinking water. The innovative techniques are there. However, I think that here in the Netherlands we are not yet ready to use treated effluent as a raw material. It’s mainly in our minds that we think it’s dirty, unpleasant or unhygienic. This is different in other parts of the world. They are happy with effluent.”

Integration with energy, that’s where I think a lot more can be done.

“The energy transition can go hand in hand with the water transition. Energy reduction is often easier and more tangible. If the setting of a pump is not properly regulated, that is an easy button to turn to save energy without any investment costs. With water, if is often a little more difficult. There are no easy buttons to turn and investment costs are often high. That is why at Bilfinger Tebodin we often tackle energy and water together. For example, we look at the reuse of heat in hot water. Reusing heat in water has a positive impact on energy consumption, but also means that you need less hot water. An integrated approach with multiple aspects can ensure that water reduction plans do become feasible.”