Hitachi and Schwarzenegger: Solutions for a Thirsty Planet

Hitachi’s Plant Technologies division and two cities in Japan are selling treated sewage water to an iron ore mining company in West Australia for use in industrial processes that today consume scarce drinking water.

Ore ships go to Japan fully loaded, but come back to Australia empty, taking on seawater as ballast for that return trip. The treated sewage water will be used for ballast instead, so there is no extra energy used (or net carbon and smog emissions) in moving the water. Moreover, invasive marine species typically hitch a ride in ballast water of ships (California is among many jurisdictions that now restrict dumping of ballast water into sensitive ecosystems like SF Bay), so this novel use of reclaimed fresh water eliminates another environmental threat.

This project comes as cities like Perth (in Western Australia, near the iron ore mines) have seen a 65% percent decline of flows into dams in the past decade because of ongoing drought and increases in human uses of fresh water. The Land Down Under has begun $13.2 billion in desalination plant construction projects and expects to obtain up to a third of the nation’s water from this source by 2015. Of course desalination is the equivalent of making water from electricity, which in Australia’s case means burning more coal and increasing both air pollution and carbon emissions.

Unlike almost every other essential commodity, it has long been assumed that conserving water in one place won’t help populations on another side of the globe. Hitachi’s idea proves otherwise and makes much more sense than desalination. It saves energy, reduces waste, and creates a valuable international commodity, rewarding efficient uses of water on both sides of the transaction.

Meanwhile, because no silver bullet will solve the world’s water crisis, desalination will likely expand beyond Australia and the Middle East and California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is showing a better way to get the electricity from which to power it. A report from the state’s Public Utilities Commission reports that his “Million Solar Roof Initiative” has dramatically increased clean energy, sustainable jobs, and harnessed market forces to lower costs to a par with fossil fueled energy. Rooftop systems are being installed in California at the rate of about one large power plant every six months and the cost of typical systems has dropped nearly 20% since the program began in 2007.

Yes, the state did create an incentive system to jumpstart the program, with a goal of phasing out subsidies when mass production lowered costs to be competitive with fossil fuels, but the report shows that for every dollar spent by the state, another $2.62 has been invested in green jobs and factories in California from other sources. 

Congress can learn from these two trends as it approaches its election-year energy bill. First, legislation is needed to level the playing field faster by eliminating subsidies to fossil fuels and water hogs. Tax breaks and other subsidies to oil, gas, and coal are well documented, making it difficult for renewable energy to compete without the heroics of programs like Schwarzenegger’s. Meanwhile, federal water subsidies in California alone cut the price of more than half the state’s developed water some 75% below the true delivered cost. Congress should also start making the connection between valuable resources, like the sun and treated/discarded sewage water, to make better use of both.

Incentives for renewable energy, that also create co-benefits for water, should be prioritized. With a little help from Congress, sewage plants in Illinois or Ohio, for example, could harvest hydrogen from sewage water using wind, solar, and biomass energy to power the entire US transportation fleet. Sewage plants near ports in states like California - - where 50% of the nation’s imported goods pass through - - could sell their wastewater to China, sending it as ballast water to factories that need it on the ships that bring goods to US consumers. China’s rivers are running dry from growth in both industrial and municipal demand, so this is the same win-win as the Japan-Australia deal. 

There are numerous trade and technical hurdles to a plan like this, but Congress could make significant progress to lower those barriers and make these innovative solutions to the world’s energy and water shortages into practical realities. Or, it could pass another pork-filled measure that assures another few years of business-as-usual. The choices are as bright as the sun and as clear as a cool drink of water.