Welsh Water has described how it will achieve zero carbon emissions by 2040, produce all its own green energy by 2050 and hit the sector-wide 2030 net-zero commitment.

The not-for-profit company will tackle carbon across the whole lifecycle of its assets, including fugitive emissions from sewage treatment processes and embedded carbon from infrastructure projects.

“Many companies talk about their ambition to 2030 but not including the embedded carbon but we are calculating that in our plan to 2040,” Steve Wilson, managing director of wastewater services told Utility Week. “We are being bolder and more ambitious with our all-encompassing plan across all the things we do. We are hoping to reach 90 per cent of that by 2030, so we aren’t parking it for the last ten years.”

The company is one of Wales’ highest energy users with an annual bill of £46 million but it plans to be 35 per cent energy self-sufficient by 2025 and will invest £21 million to achieve this over the current regulatory investment period. The ultimate aim is to become 100 per cent energy self-sufficient – or energy neutral – by 2050.

Process emissions in wastewater treatment remain one of the more challenging areas to decarbonise.

“As an industry we are only just getting our heads around some of these emissions, such as nitrous oxide, that are many times worse than C02 in terms of the greenhouse climate effect,” Wilson said.

He explained the company is in a good starting position to reduce highly energy intensive processes due to many of its sewage treatment plants using biofilters, however many larger plants require energy intensive kit.

“Over the last three or four investment periods when we’ve had to drive for tighter standards and improve operational efficiencies, we’ve often gone for more energy intensive type plants, so we need to get our estate of assets as sustainable as possible. We need to get the right balance of green infrastructure and greener treatment processes, but also minimise as much as possible those process emissions that can’t be avoided.”

Another area of focus for AMP8 will be electrifying the fleet.

Wilson said the company is exploring hydrogen production at one of its sewage sites, which is next to Cardiff city’s waste incinerator.

Following an initial feasibility study, the company has applied to Ofwat’s Breakthrough Innovation Challenge to install a hydrogen plant at the sewage works that can produce HGV fuel for the council’s bin lorry fleet and the sludge tankers.

The company has four large sludge treatment centres, one houses Wales’ only gas-to-grid system and is starting to explore producing biomethane and hydrogen as a fuel.

As well as technological innovation, the company is exploring nature-based solutions to manage the effects of climate change through greener infrastructure.

“The next couple of years are key for innovating around green, nature-based technologies so we can avoid the need to pour more concrete that will make the battle to net zero even tougher”, Wilson said.

Multiple benefits from nature

The company is working to improve land around its reservoirs to sequester carbon, retain water, improve water quality and reduce overflow in winter.

“We’re well placed to have a real go at this. We’ll never be able to completely avoid pouring concrete or putting steel in the ground, but we’re better placed than many to implement nature-based solutions.”

He said he was encouraged by Ofwat’s inclusion of nature-based solutions in the framework for PR24, because the recognition of multiple benefits are often separate to a straight cost benefit basis.

Changing customer expectations

“Our customers expect us as such a big player in the Welsh environment to be a leader in this space. But we’ve got more to do to explain to customers the input they have. A good example is in the past 12 months water consumption has gone up quite considerably and that rise in per capita consumption stopped us hitting our target for the percentage of energy we generate ourselves.”

The company has a target to generate 25 per cent of its own energy but for the first year of AMP7 it only reached 23 per cent, which Wilson said was attributable to the increase in PCC during lockdown.

“We’ve got more to do in explaining to customers what part they play. We’ve just had the wettest May on record so it can be hard talking about water efficiency but when people see it has a carbon cost also it will help. There aren’t many people in Wales who don’t understand the risks of climate change.”