The Head Zookeeper's Solutions for Wastewater and Water

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December 13, 2019 | Geoff Roberts

As a young engineer I always tended to think about wastewater treatment as a manufacturing process, receiving influent wastewater and then producing a clean effluent at the outfall of the plant.

This perspective was reinforced from my power plant days, where a power plant would manage water and wastewater volumes similar to a medium sized, 10-15 MGD municipal wastewater treatment plant (WWTP). My “aha” breakthrough moment occurred when I was working towards my A level Wastewater Operator’s license when one of the instructors with decades of experience operating wastewater plants started his presentation by introducing himself as “the head zookeeper”.

“Think about it,” he said. “You’re responsible for managing a system that receives a constantly changing food supply, from periods of abundance to periods of near starvation, to an ever changing mixture of animals that are eating, breeding and dying and you have to try and keep this system in balance and healthy so the ultimate discharge meets all consents and oh…by the way you have to perform this service for the lowest possible cost”.

How Does this Zoo Impact Innovyze and the Recent Acquisition of Emagin?

Depending on where you’re located in the world, somewhere between 1 and 3.5% of the total electricity generated is consumed by water and wastewater facilities. Naturally, utilities and regulators have focused extensively on energy cost and finding ways to reduce their operating costs and energy footprint. Power saving solutions always received attention from the utilities. But there are other emerging considerations, reinforced by increasing environmental, social and governance (ESG) demands and other factors, that make this far more complex going forward for our customers.

The Zoo is Changing

  • Low flow shower heads and toilets coupled with greater awareness around water conservation generally means that wastewater entering plants is more concentrated waste than the plants were originally designed to serve.
  • Routine maintenance of collection systems as envisioned by Capacity, Management, Operations and Maintenance (CMOM) practices and WWTP maintenance cycles seldom occur in the field, creating greater variability at the plants and increased operational problems. In the past, no one got into trouble for “kicking the can down the road”, deferring maintenance and fixing things when they broke. There is finally a growing awareness by industry and its regulators that this status quo is failing its customers and tangible actions must replace talk.
  • The experience and skills of plant operators and overall staffing at WWTPs has steadily declined over the past decade, resulting in both less experienced and fewer staff to meet challenges at the same time that day-to-day operations are becoming more complex and demanding.
  • The legacy mindset has been successful in reducing power costs to WWTPs. However, the savings were often obtained from adding variable frequency drives (VFDs) and a heavy-handed approach of reducing aeration of aerobic secondary basins. The impact is that secondary basins that were designed for dissolved oxygen (DO) levels of 1-2% ppm (or mg/l) now are routinely operating < 0.5% ppm (which means the microbes are being choked of their oxygen supply). The negative impact is deteriorating treatment efficacy and poorer effluent quality which in turn increases discharge consent problems due to higher levels of carbonaceous Biochemical oxygen demand (CBOD), ammonia and other contaminants in the effluent.

With fewer, and less skilled, staff, coupled with more complex challenges, our customers need real world solutions that reflect their operating reality.

"We’ll be able to offer the ideal solution that can manage more complex challenges like simultaneously optimizing power and effluent quality"

What’s Changing in the Market

I’ve recently been working on a project at a UK WWTP to improve treatment plant efficacy. For the first time in the past 10 years, the Utility’s focus has explicitly expanded beyond just energy savings. They are now intent on also improving effluent quality and balancing both energy and environmental metrics at the same time. This challenge becomes a much more complex problem to solve. Artificial intelligence (AI) solutions are hot topics for application in the wastewater and water industry and some believe (or hope) that maybe these solutions can be a band-aid solution to solve their immediate operating concern. But as we know, these potential solutions are only as smart as the data and information upon which it is based.

This perfect storm of challenges is why the combination of Innovyze and Emagin is so powerful. Problems in the water and wastewater industry are seldom resolved effectively in isolation. These problems frequently result from or create network problems. Complex and dynamic problems demand state of the art solutions, and this plays to the strengths of Innovyze.

A New Level of Capability for Customers

The combination of Innovyze and Emagin will bring a unique suite of sophisticated solutions to serve our customers. The Innovyze legacy is built around deeply understanding the systems of our customers and bringing the best deep engineering expertise and analysis to help design, manage and operate our customers’ systems. Creating a digital twin of a physical system is a natural extension of this expertise. Artificial intelligence through machine learning as an innovative complement to Innovyze’s sophisticated hydraulic modelling tools will bring an entirely new level of capability to the market. We’ll be able to offer the ideal solution that can manage more complex challenges like simultaneously optimizing power and effluent quality.

I believe that this combination will position Innovyze as an even more trusted partner to our customers. We are already a critical ingredient of customers' engineering and planning efforts and now we can aspire to become the essential mission critical core of their operations.

PS: If you want to be quickly passed through immigration controls when you visit a country and are asked about the purpose of your visit simply respond that “I’m here to visit sewer plants”. The puzzled look is usually rapidly followed by a perceptible pushback in the chair, increasing their physical distance to you coupled with a deft hand that rapidly stamps your passport followed by encouragement to move on and an urgent wave to the next passenger in line.

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Tags: wastewater treatment plant, Emagin, energy saving, operational effectiveness

About the Authors

Geoff Roberts

Geoff Roberts



Geoff Roberts is Chairman of the Board at Innovyze. He has worked in the energy, environmental and utility industry throughout his career. He brings a diverse background of experience from the management and executive levels in the commercial, technical and operational areas of the energy and environmental industries spanning more than 35 years. His experiences range from asset management, asset development, O&M and M&A to energy trading and origination. His career involved working for leading energy companies both domestically and internationally, including NextEra Energy (FKA Florida Power & Light), Shell Oil, Enron and Entergy. With EQT, he has served on the Boards of Innovyze, Synagro Technologies, Midland Cogeneration Ventures, Restaurant Technologies, Peregrine Midstream partners and Contanda Terminals. Outside of EQT he has served on the boards of Entegra Power Group and Primus Green Energy. He has a Master’s of Business Administration from Florida Atlantic University and a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Miami, and is a Class A licensed wastewater Treatment Plant Operator in the State of Texas.