Partnerships crucial in reaching sustainability goals

Partnerships crucial in reaching sustainability goals

 Mads Leth, CEO, VCS Denmark, highlights the strengths of Denmark’s water and wastewater sectors and efforts the industry has made in lowering carbon emissions and creating a more sustainable ecosystem.


How does Denmark’s water sector differentiate from other global urban centers?

It is quite a diverse industry. Typically, each municipality has its own utility, but there are many smaller, private drinking water facilities. Drinking water in Denmark is based on a strong tradition of groundwater. Historically, it has always been extremely clean; it was essentially quite easy to produce drinking water here. In other rural areas, you will find small privately owned and operated waterworks. The larger ones — typically around the bigger cities — are owned by local municipalities but are corporatized and operated on a strictly not-for-profit basis. Costs are carried over to consumers. Consumers pay a tariff not only for drinking water but for handling wastewater. We recently started carrying the cost of climate adaptation. Big projects handling rainwater now also fall under the responsibility of utilities. The sector is tightly financially controlled by the state, meaning that there is a fixed amount of money we can claim from our customers as an incentive to be more effective.

There is exceptionally strong support from the public sector. One positive is that we are not privatized. Although we cannot earn money by supplying drinking water to the public or handling wastewater, this does not mean we are not effective. This has helped push the agenda both in reducing the consumption of drinking water and the efficiency in the handling and treatment of wastewater. Many current utilities — especially the larger ones in the larger cities — operate on an energy-neutral or an energy-positive scheme. This means we produce more energy than we consume. Since many cities have a district heating system, any excess heat can be sold to the grid and electricity can be sold as green electricity. We are moving from being solely providers and handlers to playing a critical role in our green transformation. We are immensely vital in the local infrastructure.

We have plenty of water in Denmark due to our long coastline. There is increasingly heavy rainfall and a rise in the level of groundwater. We have water coming at us from everywhere. Right now, we are looking into how to handle the increase, even in the middle of cities. Citizens have suddenly started getting groundwater in gardens and basements. Instead of each individual household fixing the problem, we are now looking into a new regulation that would have the utility handle this situation, which makes sense. Some utilities are also now working on coastal protection projects because these developments are all connected.


Can you give us an overview of VCS Denmark’s current operations and strategy?

Founded in 1853, we were the first public waterworks in Denmark. We bear a strong history of supplying drinking water and have taken care of wastewater since the early 1900s. We have constantly pushed the sector. We were the first company to be corporatized by the local authorities more than 25 years ago before it was even required by law. We have been operating as an independent company for a long time. We are now heavily involved with research and development collaborations with other utilities, suppliers and universities. We want to push our business and the water sector in Denmark and inspire other sectors in the rest of the world. We provide consultancy and training to people internationally in places like Singapore, North America, Zambia or anywhere in the world.

While our main drive is to have stable operations, we are actively looking into more sustainable operations through lowering our carbon footprint. To accomplish this, we have introduced new technology, processes and knowhow. We are heavily involved in research and development collaborations. We have a collaboration with the two other largest cities in Denmark, Aarhus and utilities in the greater Copenhagen area. The three of us cover nearly 50 percent of the Danish water sector. We are publicly owned and not in a competitive market. Our main focus is not commercial business but rather the environment, sustainability and the best interests of our customers. We support Danish businesses within the water technology segment by participating in development and showcasing their solutions. It is critical we remain on the forefront and realize we will not succeed if we do this alone. We collaborate nationally and internationally.


What significant international projects has VCS Denmark been involved in?

While our position in the global market is a smaller part of our company, one way we use it is to make ourselves an attractive place to work. We offer international options to our employees. We are in competition for skilled labor at all levels; these individuals are highly sought after. A recent example of international work was with a Danish supplier that installed new infrastructure in the northern part of Zambia. They built and upgraded existing plants and created new waterworks, groundwater abstraction and wastewater treatment facilities. They provided all construction and investments. Our role was to train the local operational people from the local utility and show them how to operate and maintain a wastewater treatment plant and operate the waterwork. This includes how to fix a pump and operate a vacuum-cleaning truck and all hands-on activities. Our specialty as a utility is in the everyday operations. The core of our existence is providing a stable supply of clean drinking water and handling wastewater. This solid knowledge can be contributed to other utilities. Our employees contribute to a better environment and safer drinking water in Africa and the world.


What initiatives has the company undergone to promote sustainability and lower the utility’s carbon footprint?

Our work on energy recovery from the water cycle is a solid example. We have been operating biogas plants since the 1950s. Originally, biogas was not implemented to generate energy, rather it was intended to reduce the amount of biosolids coming out of the wastewater treatment plant. However, with today’s technologies and very efficient combined heat and power engines, one can convert biogas into green energy. It is the first step in becoming energy neutral. The next step is looking at environmental footprints to see how much off-gas emissions are coming from systems, such as nitrous oxide and methane. The following step is to eliminate or at least diminish one’s climate footprint. On the drinking water side, it is more a question of sustainable abstraction of groundwater. We need to focus on how we manage our well field in the best possible way, concentrating not only on energy consumption but the environment where we extract the drinking water.

It is not just about focusing on energy and carbon dioxide but looking at one’s entire footprint. We can recover other resources, especially from wastewater, such as nitrogen and phosphorus. There is a lot of work being done all over the world in recovering phosphorus from wastewater and recovering nitrogen for use as a fertilizer product. The waste product from our own wastewater treatment plants is biosolid sludge. We need to find a good solution to handle this, which is a global problem. There are a lot of nutrients in it but there are also heavy metals, pesticide residues, medicines, oil residues and microplastics. We are currently focusing on pyrolysis, a thermal process that eliminates most of the pollution while preserving nitrogen and phosphorus.

Our research and development efforts are focused on the pyrolysis process that we are implementing now. There are also alternative technologies that we are testing and implementing, mainly to reduce nitrous oxide and methane emissions from wastewater treatment. We are also interested in deoxyribonucleic acid technology and what we can learn from sequencing bacteria. Currently all capacity in Denmark in this segment is going towards sequencing the COVID-19 virus, but professors also have a big project on sequencing bacteria from drinking and wastewater treatment plants. Additionally, the digital transformation is allowing us to benefit from the large amounts of data we generate daily in our operations.

I am pleased we are focusing more holistically on the entire water cycle and recognize we cannot handle one small part without influencing other parts. This became clear when the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals emerged; they really broadened our horizons. We translated the global goals into local goals for our municipality and our utility. These define the major challenges we face. This set a long-term strategy for the company to become sustainable beyond our traditional five-year strategy period. We now focus on a much longer timeframe, looking at how the company will look like by 2030, 2040 and even 2050. We invest in heavy infrastructure every year. This infrastructure must also be sustainable and usable in 50 years. It is critical we make the right decisions and right investments today to cope with climate adaptation and increasing groundwater levels and reduce our carbon footprint.


How significant are digital advances in the water and wastewater sectors?

The traditional business of drinking water production and wastewater management has been automated and digitized for years. There are actually not many people that work at our company. It is mostly maintenance workers and those that know about control systems. For the past 25 years we have had a fully automated production system running our drinking water production and our wastewater treatment plants. With all the data we generate from all our online equipment, we can now start using models to help us even further. Effectively, we can model the entire water cycle. When it starts raining somewhere in the city, we know how that affects our collection system; we know how it will affect our wastewater treatment plant; and we know that the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus we discharge into the local rivers after the wastewater treatment will affect the environmental state of the rivers. All knowledge about the entire water cycle is based on integrated modeling. Additionally, we have a digital twin that tells us what our wastewater treatment plant is supposed to do. If it performs in another way, something is going on. It may be an error, or it may be a discovery. Digital twins help us deliver even better services and improve our environmental footprint.


What kind of industry wide collaborations strengthen Denmark’s water sector?

3VAND is the aforementioned informal collaboration between Aarhus, Copenhagen and Odense. It is enormously important. It is not a company rather it is a close collaboration at the CEO, CFO, and specialist level. We have encouraged our process specialists to team up and work across different cities. We all have the same issues and the same projects. We all share knowledge gained from the work across different areas. A crucial factor is that none of us are in it for the business. We are instead here for the knowhow and technology so that we can constantly improve our companies and the entire Danish water sector. The collaboration also involves the Technical University of Denmark, the University of Southern Denmark, Aarhus University, and Danish suppliers. The data we generate at the wastewater treatment plant can be used by all partners in the project. Even though Odense is the third largest city, we are still a relatively small company with limited resources. Sharing these resources between utilities makes all the difference in the world.

We also work in close collaboration with all universities in Denmark and we are now moving into European projects. Being part of significant European projects is a new thing for us. It involves gaining close contacts with other institutes. The knowhow we are being exposed to in the Netherlands is profoundly interesting. We recently became a member of an organization from the Netherlands called Wetsus involved in research and development. We are also looking to connect with partners in North America. Essentially, we are moving from national collaboration to more international projects, which is exciting. Challenges we face in our industry and all industries require collaboration and partnerships. The challenges in becoming sustainable are great. It is not enough to focus on your own company.