The northern economy is built on the availability of clean water, while existing resources are under pressure. What does the increasing (drinking) water scarcity mean for the business climate in the Northern Netherlands? Partly because of the industrial growth in the Eems Delta, the situation in Groningen is very topical. André van Toly (Groningen Water Company) and Perry van der Marel (North Water) share their perspective on the inevitable water transition.
We experienced the driest summer ever in our country in 2018. Since then, it has slowly dawned on citizens and businesses that drinking water is not a natural flow from which you can tap endlessly. Yet consumption in Groningen continued to show an upward trend over the past five years, even though the limits have almost been reached. 'This increasing pressure on our water supply is unsustainable, which is why we have the task of achieving zero percent growth,' says André van Toly, manager of Market & Innovation at Waterbedrijf Groningen (WBG). 'In other words, even if demand increases further, the amount of water available will remain the same. That's why we need to save even more, reuse and develop alternatives for drinking water.'
Water demand is becoming a more stringent criterion in economic development. New enterprises are already subject to higher requirements for a water connection. Existing companies where process water is essential will also have to invest more heavily in sustainable water use in the near future. 'That is not an easy message to send to our customers,' André realizes. Although more and more companies are aware that this transition is necessary to stay economically viable. Water scarcity is not only an issue in Groningen, a change is needed everywhere. The laws and regulations are changing slowly, but last year the Council of Ministers already came up with the objective that the Netherlands must achieve a drinking water saving of twenty percent before 2035. That applies to consumers as well as companies and large industrial users.'
In Groningen, about fifty percent of the available drinking water goes to citizens; a quarter is consumed by the small business market and the other quarter flows towards large industrial companies in sectors such as (petro)chemicals, agro, energy, food and data centers. 'Every large business customer in our region consumes 10,000 cubic meters or more annually, with a run-up to one and a half million cubic meters for the largest customer,' André explains. 'Water is indispensable in their processes, only in far from all cases it has to be drinking water. In addition to our strong commitment to drinking water conservation, we have therefore, together with North Water, been encouraging the use of industrial water wherever possible for years. At many company sites, realizing such a new water supply is a considerable task - technically and logistically as well as financially - but for the long term it is a necessary provision.'
Customization in water
North Water is a joint venture of WBG and Evides Industriewater, which has already built up considerable experience in sustainable water solutions in the Benelux countries. From the use of treated surface water to oxygenated water, and from water reuse to wastewater treatment: North Water is a partner for all water challenges in the industrial sector. 'We offer customized solutions, which is needed more than ever in this transition,' says managing director Perry van der Marel. 'Most companies have been working on water conservation for some time and all the relatively simple solutions have often been implemented. With the current task in Groningen - zero percent growth in drinking water consumption among wholesale customers - it comes down to more complex measures.'
We work on water in consultation with all stakeholders, the North Netherlands' neighboring provinces and everyone who has or wants a water connection here.André van Toly, Groningen Water Company
'The point is that existing plants are built on the obvious availability of potable water,' Perry continues. 'If you're also going to work with industrial water, you have to separate those streams. That sounds simple, but with already existing buildings and pipeline networks, that's quite a puzzle. Moreover, the use of industrial water also requires conscious choices and moderation. Because the purification and reuse of water requires chemicals, energy, storage and sometimes also extra transport. On the balance of sustainability and costs, this does not always work out favorably. That is why the key question is always: what water is really needed and what kind of water will suffice?'
For the Groningen water transition, both new and existing business consumers are challenged to optimize their processes. 'Especially with expansion plans and innovations, water conservation and sustainable water use should be standard on the agenda,' André says. 'Companies don't have to do that alone, of course. They can appeal to North Water or other market parties. And they can spar with investment partners such as the NOM to enable innovations or drive business development around the water transition. As a water company, we also like to share our knowledge and support customers, for example, with a water scan. Then we map out how much water goes in and out and what cubic meters and quality is needed in the processes in the meantime. Such a balance provides insight and helps to find options for water savings and possible alternatives to drinking water.'
Perry adds, "We from North Water are also looking at joint solutions in the region. Such as multiclient systems where multiple companies use the same flow of industrial process water. Scale ensures that treatment plants are more efficient in their use of energy and chemicals as well as lower costs per customer. In realizing local and regional solutions, security of supply is always the starting point. 'When companies invest millions, they want a guarantee that sufficient water will continue to be available in the future,' says Perry. 'In this regard, we in Groningen are partly dependent on the distribution of water in the Netherlands, although here we are also purposefully investing in a basic regional infrastructure of alternative water sources.'
Every drop counts
The alternative water sources Perry is referring to include circular streams in addition to surface water, for example, in which wastewater is processed for reuse. 'Last summer we even started a pilot in which we are investigating whether household sewage water from the city of Groningen can be upgraded to industrial water (see box REGAIN, ed.). In the past, something like this was still unthinkable, also because of the risks that people saw. Now more and more parties are realizing that this processed wastewater within industry can also be a valuable source for circular water production. Scarcity greatly affects our perception. Acute shortages have not yet occurred in Groningen, but the situation here is quite dire and then you want to get ahead of serious water problems. Pilots like REGAIN may contribute to that.'
When every drop counts, the key is to make the best use of all flows. And that includes rainwater. 'The longer periods of drought are a consequence of climate change, but due to more extreme weather we also have to deal with temporary surpluses of water,' André says of the heavy rainstorms that cause more frequent nuisance. 'Buffering that water is also an important part of the water transition. How we as a region can pick up on that, we as a water company are discussing that with parties such as the water board, province and municipalities, the Department of Public Works, and the agricultural sector. Perry continues: 'Companies can work with a buffer tank, but on a large scale we think more about retaining water in the subsoil. This can be done, for example, by creating fresh water bubbles along the coastline during wet periods so that it can be pumped up and used during droughts.'
Livability at level
To achieve a future-proof water system in Groningen, so many lines come together that it is necessary to act together. 'We work on water in consultation with all stakeholders, the neighboring provinces in the north of the Netherlands and everyone who has or wants a water connection here,' the gentlemen conclude. 'What is clear is that the water balance will be a major challenge in the coming decades - also for companies - and that we have to look far ahead when finding solutions. Because major investments will only pay off later, but also to make smart choices when building treatment plants and laying pipes. In everything we do now, the underlying aim is to ensure a future-proof supply of drinking water and industrial water in order to maintain the quality of life and the business climate in our region'.
REGAIN: Groningen sewage possibly new source for industry
At the sewage treatment plant in Garmerwolde last summer a special study was started: REGAIN is testing three different techniques to further purify the treated sewage from the city of Groningen in such a way that medicine residues are removed. The aim is to keep the northern Dutch ecosystem healthy and to make the treated wastewater suitable for reuse in industry. Whether REGAIN provides a new source of industrial process water depends partly on its feasibility and scalability in terms of the energy and funding required. REGAIN is a joint research project of Noorderzijlvest Water Board, industrial water supplier North Water, center for water quality and technology WLN and the CEW (Center of Expertise Water Technology) and is made possible by contributions from the National Program Groningen, the Wadden Fund and EemsdeltaGreen.