The number one barrier to decarbonisation for New Zealand organisations is accurate measurement – that’s the main finding of Microsoft’s Accelerating the Journey to Net Zero report, released in March 2022. Most Kiwi organisations have committed to addressing climate change, but fall short when it comes to implementing their strategies, often because they’re unsure exactly how to measure where they sit now, and how to maintain an accurate picture of emissions as they go along.
As Microsoft NZ National Technology Officer, Russell Craig, says: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”.
It’s the same for utilities company Watercare, charged with delivering a clean and sustainable water supply to 1.7 million Auckland residents. Watercare is one of the acknowledged public sector leaders in sustainability, being the only New Zealand water utility company to have signed to the UN’s Race to Zero campaign ahead of COP26 in Glasgow.
It’s committed to strong targets and regular reporting on progress as part of a group of leading water services providers from across Australia and the UK. It has also influenced the rest of the sector on the importance of calculating embodied carbon, (the carbon contained in its infrastructure), not just what’s emitted by its operations.
Decarbonisation is baked into its ambitious programme of infrastructure builds.
“We have massive commitments to reduce embodied carbon by 40 per cent by 2024, with a multi-million-dollar programme of work underway to upgrade existing infrastructure and build new,” says Chris Thurston, Head of Sustainability at Watercare.
As well as this, Watercare is focusing on its operational emissions and has devised a way of using the methane that comes from sewage to generate electricity at two of its largest treatment plants. Looking ahead, the four combined heat and power engines to do this are being upgraded by 2030 so they will no longer use natural gas as a starter fuel – but much more is in the pipeline.
Harnessing technology to address the measurement challenge
However, the exact scale of Watercare’s carbon footprint is hard to determine. This has hampered its ability to plan and release its strategies as fast as it would like.
“For us inconsistent reporting around data is our biggest challenge, particularly given the complexities involved in reporting our carbon footprint.”
While Watercare is extremely proactive in calculating and reporting on its carbon footprint, a lot of variables need to be taken into account, including the creation of biosolids following treatment of wastewater. There are multiple calculation models and data sources from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Ministry for the Environment, as well as international standards or baselines that require localisation to New Zealand (or Auckland) conditions.
With Watercare due to release a new climate strategy later in 2022, it’s especially important to get the calculations as accurate as possible.
Like many heavy emitters in the utilities sector, Watercare is investing in technologies to support better, more accurate monitoring. It’s already testing Microsoft’s Cloud for Sustainability, due to launch later this year. Thurston plans to set up a data lake, with all operational, embedded and end of life carbon recorded against all the company’s assets for easier reporting – and management.
Leading on cross-industry solutions
The Accelerating the Journey report recommended both collaboration and investment in R&D as especially crucial to turning carbon commitments into action, with large businesses able to create economies of scale on behalf of others.
That’s something Watercare is very conscious of, given that sometimes, the right technology or solutions simply aren’t there yet.
“We’re forming partnerships with supply chain partners and there is a recognition that no one party has all the answers. We need to work together to achieve low carbon outcomes,” Thurston explains.
In partnership with Vector Energy, Watercare has built New Zealand’s first floating solar array at Rosedale wastewater treatment plant. It has also stepped up investment in its own R&D to advance technologies that could benefit the whole sector, such as launching a pilot of advanced wastewater treatment technologies like Membrane aerated biofilm reactors (MABR).
It is also trialling a new use for a by-product of wastewater treatment called struvite, collecting it to be used as a fertiliser. This provides a potential avenue for reusing biosolids once its project to rehabilitate the quarry on Puketutu Island is complete in 2049, using waste from the Mangere Treatment Plant to create a regional park for Aucklanders to enjoy in the future. Long-term, more innovations like this will be needed to find another solution for the biosolids.
Watercare also wants to convert a significant amount of its fleet to biofuels or sustainable energies by 2027 to support its carbon targets. That’s on the assumption that the technology to do so will be available and fit for purpose. EV service trucks up to carrying the right loads aren’t currently available, though the company already has already electrified its fleet of pool vehicles for shared use at head office.
To help address the limitations, Watercare has invested in a pilot on its Central Interceptor project starting in 2022, which will see three large heavy electric trucks carry excavated material from the site, offering a low carbon and less noisy solution through local neighbourhoods, while testing their capabilities.
Leading the way for others and setting demand for low carbon solutions is core to Watercare’s mission.
“By setting carbon targets for infrastructure, it provides a clear signal to the market on what’s important. An example of this is with our cement providers and the journey towards zero carbon concrete over time. Materials such as low-carbon concrete are now being investigated and used in infrastructure delivery on all our projects,” Thurston says.
The solution – finance, innovation and collaboration
Thurston acknowledges there’s a real tension between Watercare’s targets to reduce emissions and the reality that Auckland’s population is fast growing. With that comes more demand for water and wastewater services. Climate change is compounding the issue, with the recent drought driving up energy consumption 21 per cent as more water needed to be pumped from the Waikato River to Auckland.
The Microsoft report found many businesses wanted new finance options to help fund decarbonisation strategies, with only 43 per cent of New Zealand organisations saying they had the financial resources needed to execute their carbon reduction policies.
Thurston agrees new finance models are needed to accelerate decarbonisation.
“We’ve been pleased to see more alternative financing models happening in New Zealand to fund additional renewable generation, such as solar. We’re also looking at financial options to see whether there are any clever ways to deliver climate outcomes whilst also ensuring the price of water is kept as low as possible,” he says.
Ideas have included an internal “shadow” price of carbon used by the likes of NZ Post to change behaviour across the organisation.
But just as organisations can’t tackle climate change in isolation, no one solution holds all the answers. Thurston says every avenue needs to be explored.
“A combination of innovation, collaboration and engagement (and possibly legislation) will be most useful in helping address carbon emissions, both to incentivise positive behaviours in businesses and households but also to speed up development of technologies that reduce our consumption of water and energy,” he says.
“Watercare is continuing to look for ways to reduce carbon emissions as well as engage customers on the importance of water. We believe water is a taonga, and one that everyone has a role in protecting.”