With a global water crisis weighing heavily on the world, POET has a solid plan to conserve water in ethanol production.
A young boy, his slight body casting a stick figure’s shadow in the dust beside him, hurries to keep pace behind his mother as she walks quickly along a shack-lined dirt path, a metal water pot clutched in her arms. She beckons to the boy to hurry. In one hand, he swings a faded plastic bucket. In the other, he holds a long stick, fraying at the tip where he has stopped to poke at a beetle crossing his path. But at his mother’s call, he now tosses the stick aside and scurries to catch up. To an outsider, the stench of open sewage flowing alongside the homes they pass would be overpowering, but the child and his mother seem not to notice.
They make the long trek every day, to a safe water source far from the slum where they live, joining thousands of other families from villages with no adequate nearby water sources nor latrines. They will stand for hours in lines as long as the endless sky. Some days, there simply isn’t enough water. They will go without.
Scenes like the one depicted above are common in areas just outside the capital city of Dhaka in Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest countries where nearly onefi fth of the 156 million inhabitants are without drinking water, according to Nicole Wickenhauser, Senior Communications Manager for the water advocacy group Water.org, Kansas City, Mo. Wickenhauser has reported firsthand her impressions of life in the Dhaka slums, where her organization is working to bring clean, local water sources to villagers.
“Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world, and the water and sanitation situation in Dhaka is severe,” writes Wickenhauser. “For comparison, take the population of New York City, add 3 million people, and put about 40 percent of the population out on the street living on less than $2 per day, without access to any public water or sanitation infrastructure. Then flood the entire city at least once a year. This gives you just a small idea of the scale of the poverty and need in this city.”
Sadly, it’s a scenario repeated in locations spotting the globe. Consider this sobering fact: less than 1 percent of the world’s fresh water is readily accessible for direct human use and nearly 1 billion people lack access to clean water.
It’s staggering statistics like these that have POET answering the call of the global water crisis with its own Ingreenuity Water Conservation Plan, a roadmap for reducing and reusing water use in the ethanol production process.
This plan also acknowledges the issues of water scarcity beyond the confines of the Corn Belt. The program allows for a more than $420,000 contribution from the POET foundation for the construction of water wells in underdeveloped parts of the world. And that’s no drop in the bucket considering experts estimate that in developing countries, it would only take about $10 to provide clean water to a child for life.
Through its contribution, POET is working with Global Health Ministries (GHM) to provide safe drinking water for villages in Nigeria. The Rev. Tim Iverson, GHM executive director, Minneapolis, Minn., says the plan to bring safe, clean water into areas of Nigeria has the potential to affect the lives of 200,000 to 500,000 people living in the region. Thanks to the grant from POET, he expects at least 85 wells will be dug or made operative again over the next five years. Even in areas that have wells, the wells are often polluted or have not been mechanically maintained. Some are not sealed properly so that animal droppings and other contaminants can flow into them during the rainy season.
“Part of the work we’ve been doing over the last number of years is to survey areas for instances of illness and causes of death, and the leading cause of death in children under 5 is diarrhea, caused by contaminated water,” he says.
Like many of the organizations working to bring clean water to underdeveloped nations, GHM is a faith-based organization. Through the Minneapolis Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, GHM is able to coordinate its effort through “companion churches” in Nigeria. “That is the instrument by which we reach the population of the villages,” the Rev. Iverson explains. He is quick to add, however, that people of all faiths and beliefs benefit from the water project. And while there have been tensions between Christians and Muslims in the region, the Rev. Iverson says the water program has acted as a way for the community to come together and heal.
The grant from POET will underwrite about 60 percent of the total cost of the effort for clean water, which is part of a broader project to improve health in Nigeria. It will reduce by one-half the number of people who have no access to clean water in the areas being addressed. But the Rev. Iverson says the effect of the grant is multiplied because it is used to challenge Minneapolisarea congregations to support the effort through matching funds.
The Nigerian project has been five years in development, but is now under way with four wells already completed. “One of the nice things about this, when you have an extended time frame, is the momentum of the program — the critical mass of people trained, energized, involved and benefiting from this initiative — has a way of multiplying itself throughout the church and communities involved,” he says.
Educating people about proper sanitation, malaria prevention and nutrition, as well as providing for an array of small clinics are also a part of the broader process. “By doing what it is we’re doing — and clean water is a very key component of it — we’ll be preventing over half of the diseases that affl ict and kill the people of the region simply through prevention and education,” he explains. “When we say we can reduce a problem by half, the real impact is going to be closer to taking care of the problem entirely because of the multiplier effect. People are not going to put up with their children dying from contaminated water any more. They are going to ask, how can we get clean water? We have a trained cadre of experts to follow through.”
Steven Avadek is a sustainability and climate change consultant with Environment Resources Management (ERM), Rolling Meadows, Ill., where he serves as a core member of ERM’s global water sustainability team. He’s been involved in a wide spectrum of projects for clients, including those in the biofuels industry.
“I believe that concerns around global fresh water scarcity are not only valid, but will continue to become more prevalent in the future,” he says. “According to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), by the year 2025, it is estimated that one-third of the world’s population will face severe and chronic water shortages. Furthermore, global population is expected to rise from its current level of around 6.5 billion to 8.9 billion by 2025. This growth will not only result in a greater demand for potable water, but it will also lead to an increase in water required to produce the growing volumes of products and services consumed by these individuals. Therefore, conservation is, and will continue to be, a crucial tool in combating the growing water scarcity crisis.”
And while some Americans believe their only water worries are those quenched with the quick grab of a plastic bottle, in fact, the U.S. is facing its own labyrinth of water supply issues. Water use by the agriculture and energy sectors is increasingly coming under scrutiny. And as domestic water fights ensue, the ties between what we do here and what is happening on a global scale become more difficult to ignore.
Results from a study by the Argonne National Laboratory completed last year and included in the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) November 2009 report to the chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology, zeroes in on the major ethanol-producing regions in the country. The report shows the statistics of water use for the entire life cycle production of ethanol — from planting, growing and harvesting of corn to the biorefining process. The water use in this production cycle varies greatly according to the report – from 10 gallons to over 323 gallons.
But that variation is almost entirely due to differences in use of groundwater irrigation, and nearly half of the nation’s corn for ethanol is produced using 10 gallons of water or less. The average use of water for conversion of corn to ethanol at the plant averages 3 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol regardless of region. In comparison, the recovery and refining of one gallon of crude oil takes 3.6 — 7 gallons of water.
The biofuel conversion process’ primary use of water is for evaporative cooling. Secondary water uses include steam production and process make up. Ethanol’s need for water — despite gains in efficiencies — has led some to criticize the industry. And it was concern over effects on the local water supply that led a local water district in Minnesota to deny a permit to a proposed ethanol facility.
In addition to recognizing the need for direct aid to the world water crisis, the belief that efficient water usage is significant to the future of the ethanol industry is at the heart of POET’s Ingreenuity Water Conservation Plan.
POET has set a new goal, to be attained by 2014, of reducing the overall annual water intake at its plants by 22 percent. The plan calls for targeting average usage rates of 2.33 gallons of water taken in per gallon of ethanol produced. This will reduce POET’s total annual water utilization by one billion gallons per year based on POET’s 2009 production capacity of 1.5 billion gallons of ethanol.
When POET purchased its first ethanol facility in 1987, the plant was using 17 gallons to produce a gallon of ethanol. Nathan Schock, Public Relations Director for POET, Sioux Falls, S.D., says even after the tremendous improvements in water efficiency that have reduced that figure to 3 gallons, the company realizes there are additional opportunities to conserve.
The goal for conserving water will be tackled by installing POET’s own Total Water Recovery processes at production facilities, while continuing to look for new opportunities to recycle water and use alternative water sources. Already, almost all the water to operate POET Biorefining – Big Stone comes from retention ponds of a nearby power plant, while POET Biorefining – Corning gets a third of its water from the local waste water treatment plant. And POET Biorefining – Portland draws its water from an adjacent quarry that discharges it as part of its normal dewatering operation. In order to decrease water use of the entire industry, POET intends to make its total water recovery process available to other likeminded ethanol producers across the industry.
“With the Ingreenuity project, we have been working on reducing our overall water footprint,” explains Rachel Kloos, operations engineering manager for POET, Sioux Falls, S.D. “The process includes the recycling of nonprocess waste streams while optimizing our water use in both the production and utility sectors of the biorefineries.”
Kloos says because of the way POET’s process is set up, recycling is easy. “It required some additional equipment utilizing our patentpending recycling process. We call it 'Total Water Recovery,’ a different design for every plant depending on their water source, water quality and how the biorefinery operates, but basically it is the replacement of fresh water with a recycled stream,” she explains.
ON THE MOVE
Although the Ingreenuity project sets a goal of 2.33 gallons, Kloos is hesitant to estimate exactly where the limits on water efficiency may be. “We never stand still. We may achieve 1.5 gallons of water use, and then find we can do better. New innovation and technology are constantly improving the efficiency of the ethanol production process. Water use will only improve with these innovations.” Kloos says.
“We are such a large producer of ethanol, incremental improvements at each of our biorefineries can make a global impact on water usage,” she adds.
Kloos says she’s heard a lot of the arguments that ethanol uses too much water, but believes POET has been working to answer those concerns.
“We work very closely with our communities, whether it is a community we share an aquifer or share municipal potable water with. We want the biorefineries to leave a positive economic impact on the local economies, beyond producing good quality jobs.” Kloos explains. “As a major water consumer in these rural areas, our water reduction efficiency gains may free up water appropriations for additional commercial, domestic and industrial growth.”
Schock agrees, “By applying the creativity that comes from common sense, POET engineers have invented a new way for its facilities to use water which results in a decreased intake with a reasonable economic payback.”
“Ethanol is a green industry, but even a green innovation at our biorefineries must make good financial sense,” adds Kloos.
Kloos emphasizes that POET’s size allows changes in efficiency to have sizable impact on water use, even from a global perspective. “POET Biorefineries exceed industry benchmarks by sharing efficiency gains. Small incremental savings in water use at one facility multiplied by our total production capacity drives an overall industry optimization,” she explains.
Schock adds that all types of energy production systems should be geared toward improving efficiencies. Drought and other weather changes, he says, will continue to bring focus on water as a valuable natural resource. “I think people have started to take a closer look at the energy-water nexus and it’s the idea that all forms of energy use water in the production process. So in that regard, ethanol is no different. But because it is relatively new, people are trying to get a handle on just how water is used in the process.”
Kloos says that while the Ingreenuity program’s goals may be new, water use and reuse have always been on POET’s list or priorities. “Water is one of our highest priority commodities and we’ve always focused on optimizing our process by minimizing the amount of water we use in the plant.
Schock says although POET is the largest producer of ethanol, its company goal has never been to be the largest, but the most efficient. “And to be the most efficient means you have to be the most efficient possible with the resources you use. Water is one of those, so the less we use, the more efficient it becomes,” he says. “In addition, it’s important as we look at sustainable energy sources, like ethanol, that they are not just sustainable in terms of carbon emissions and rural economic development, but also by way of water use.”
Schock says. “It’s important to take a total life cycle approach to water use. It is certainly part our goal in this effort.”
To that end, the Ingreenuity plan calls for POET to survey its corn growers to determine the amount of irrigated corn coming into its facilities.
Schock says the effort POET is starting through Ingreenuity is the realization that the ethanol industry can do even better — and that it wants to continue to do better.
“It’s important,” he says, “for the country not to have to choose between energy production and water availability.”