World Water Day takes place every year on 22 March to focus global attention on this resource that is as precious as it is essential to life. Sound water management is a goal and a challenge that cannot wait, also because climate change is bringing water scarcity and drought to more and more parts of the planet. There are numerous possibilities when it comes to optimizing water consumption: from recovering wastewater to making supply systems more efficient, and from using sustainable energy solutions to encouraging people and businesses to adopt responsible behaviors.
Water is an increasingly limited resource
In 2010, the UN General Assembly recognized access to water as a fundamental right, at par with the right to freedom and safety. Nevertheless many people, especially in the world’s richest countries, treat it as an unlimited, or inexhaustible, resource. This is certainly not realistic, and drought and extreme climate events caused by global warming are highlighting the problem more frequently than ever. In the last 100 years, the use of water worldwide has increased more than six-fold, and it continues to rise due to population growth, in parallel with burgeoning energy needs. In addition, water consumption in some parts of the world is increasing as a result of intensive farming activities and livestock rearing.
According to UN estimates, by 2030 the world could face a 40% shortfall in water availability: this makes awareness-raising initiatives like World Water Day even more important, because everyone’s actions can make a difference.
Investing to make power plants more efficient
The Enel Group is among the organizations directly committed to the challenge of saving water, in particular by producing electricity using the minimum possible quantity of this resource. In this context, the WaVE (Water Value Enhancement) project aims to ensure comprehensive knowledge of the water processes in all of our renewable energy production plants.
In particular, 66 different investments have been identified and designed in detail through feasibility studies and benefit analyses in terms of resources and efficiency. The majority of projects are planned in water stressed areas, i.e. places where water resources are scarce and there is a greater need to reduce waste. The WaVE project also promotes the reuse of wastewater and the purification of seawater, using the latter instead of fresh water when possible. All of this is enabled by technological innovation and artificial intelligence solutions that can ensure high-performance automated systems.
The Enel Group’s other macro-area of intervention is tied to its participation in the SWA (Sanitation and Water for All) global initiative, which aims to eliminate or reduce inequalities between countries concerning access to water and basic sanitary services. This highly ambitious challenge involves a large number of stakeholders, both public and private. In line with the UN’s principles, it aims to extend to everyone the right to access essential water resources to ensure sufficient quality of life, a goal that can be made possible only through a reorganization of government policies and investments, adapting plants and infrastructure to a more efficient consumption model.
From recovering wastewater to water saving systems
By taking advantage of technological innovations, it is possible to increase the functionality of sustainable energy production plants that use water directly or indirectly. One virtuous example of this is the San Isidro power plant, in Chile, where a system has been introduced to recover water from the evaporation towers and the residue of industrial processes. This approach results in a substantial reduction in water use, and implements a circular economy approach by reusing waste materials.
These initiatives are focused in the parts of the planet where the lack of water is most problematic and where tangible actions are required to manage water stress. In the Moquegua district of Peru, through the use of intelligent software capable of measuring dips in the efficiency of photovoltaic panels, our plant cleaning system has been made significantly more efficient. Instead of water, the panels are cleaned with mechanized brushes that are activated regularly when a drop in energy production is detected. This results in a substantially lower water footprint, seeing as the panels are only washed with water for a complete clean once a year.
We also have a project in one of the world’s most arid locations – the Atacama Desert in Chile. Here, due to the vast quantities of dust and detritus, photovoltaic panels must be cleaned much more frequently in order to avoid substantial losses in efficiency. So, instead of using water, at night the panels are tilted 45° to take advantage of the nighttime humidity. The solution has proved to be a genuine success in that it has reduced water consumption without causing any negative consequences for energy production.
There truly are numerous virtuous examples of promoting the sustainable use of water; in any context it is possible to adopt systems or measures to reduce waste. In Spain, for example, wastewater from a municipal water treatment plant is reused to supply a system that reduces nitric oxide levels. Last but not least, in Panama innovative technology has enabled a shift from the manual cleaning of solar panels to an automated system, resulting in a 67% reduction in water use.