Sustainable Operations: How Leaders Can Achieve ESG Goals

Debjani Mallick, Senior Manager Supply Chain and ESG

Part 2: On-Site Water Optimization

This blog post is part two of a three-part series focusing on energy, water and waste optimization in commercial facility management and industrial operations. Subscribe to The Protiviti View to follow the series.

Water is vital to life, and one of the most impactful resources to manage equitably and sustainably. It would be hard to name anyone who isn’t a stakeholder in an enterprise’s water management decisions, but its link to environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals and regulations — as well as bottom lines — make water management a particularly important focus for leaders of ESG and sustainability programs, compliance officers, and operations and facilities managers. Managing water carefully is a critical component of many organizations’ programs to address ESG matters.

Responsible water management encompasses both treatment and consumption. Treatment is important, but most businesses will achieve the greatest gains by focusing on consumption, and consumption is the focus of this post. Minimizing the extraction and consumption of water in particularly water-intensive businesses like utilities, agriculture and heavy industry will provide the greatest opportunity for dramatic progress, but even service businesses can pursue solutions to control their water consumption better.

Managing water responsibly is more closely linked to energy management than many realize. Luckily, therefore, many of the same solutions that organizations adopt to manage energy consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are equally effective when applied to management of water and waste. As such, solutions that address energy, water and waste management deliver enormous value to sustainable operations programs.

Water consumption under pressure

Sustainable water management uses a critical and limited resource in a way that meets current ecological, social and economic needs without diminishing the world’s coordinated capabilities to meet those same needs in the future. Whether it’s to align with corporate values, comply with regulations or drive down costs, leaders need to be sure to practice responsible water consumption. Following are some examples why:

  • The European Parliament adopted a new Water Reuse Regulation in 2020 to fight water scarcity in European Union countries. The aim is to ensure that treated wastewater is used more widely to curtail extraction of fresh water from surface and ground sources. While the principal target is agriculture, the European Commission has stated it will “facilitate water reuse and efficiency in other sectors, including in industrial processes.”
  • More broadly, sustainability frameworks like those of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) draw the connection from water management to energy consumption and GHG emissions. Not only do most energy-generation processes require significant water, the converse is also true: extracting, treating and transporting water all consume substantial energy.
  • In March of this year, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission announced a proposal to require listed businesses to report on their energy consumption — and driving down water consumption helps with those metrics. The finalization of this proposal is imminent.
  • Many municipalities in the United States require energy and water disclosures from businesses. With historical consumption information freely available, stakeholders will watch for progress in organizations’ water management programs.

Driving down water consumption

A variety of solutions is available to businesses that want to reduce their water consumption. These can be implemented with in-house resources or outside help. A company’s operational environment will determine the most appropriate solution based on the opportunities unique to each business. These opportunities include:

  • Advanced water management solutions. These solutions have enhanced data collection at their foundation. Using sophisticated software and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, they assemble analyses that uncover opportunities to drive down water consumption. These digital-twin setups are not unlike solutions that control energy equipment.
  • Use of sensors. Data from sensors for humidity and temperature can be inputs to systems that automate valve settings and flow rates in water infrastructures. Sensors also support optimization, maintenance and recommissioning of water-intensive equipment and enable air-side and water-side economizing strategies.
  • Metering solutions. Advanced metering helps businesses use water off-peak when dynamic rate structures are in effect, and consumption costs are lower. Submetering allocates rates tied to usage — to residents or function heads — to establish more granular accountability.
  • Geographic information systems. These systems identify leaks to help prioritize maintenance and the construction projects that keep water systems conserving resources.
  • On-site wastewater treatment. These solutions allow enterprises to reuse gray water with minimal, localized treatment rather than transporting it off-site for restoration to drinking-water quality. This approach helps with energy consumption and GHG emissions even as it controls water consumption, because it also decreases the emissions associated with wastewater transport.
  • Dashboard reporting. Monitoring systems enable an organization to visualize and put a pulse on their water, energy and waste operations through dashboards that trend building data in near real time. Through enhanced building performance tracking, monitoring and reporting, facility managers can uncover opportunities for improvements to their building operational processes and equipment.

Final thoughts

Water’s centrality to life on Earth has global consortia, government institutions, ESG leaders and operations professionals looking for ways to use this vital resource more wisely. Careful water management can also help control energy consumption and reduce GHG emissions — a synergy that should not be lost on facility managers and ESG leaders, or on finance and operational leaders. From a technology perspective, the portfolio of solutions is similarly synergetic, with application across the realms of energy, water and waste, as we’ll detail in our next installment. Therefore, we encourage organizations to look at integrated management strategies and interconnected monitoring approaches that can handle all three topics, no matter which operational efficiency area they choose to tackle first.

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