Interview: EIP Water seeks maximum benefits from existing water-related eco-innovation

Interview: EIP Water seeks maximum benefits from existing water-related eco-innovation

The next few years could see a flood of water-related technological innovation coming out of Europe, according to EIP Water – the European Innovation Partnership established under the European Union's Innovation Union initiative.

To a great extent, those technologies already exist. However, to get the maximum benefit from them, there needs to be more practical testing and collaboration, coordination and exchange of best practices. Eco-innovation in the water sector also needs to focus on the key challenges that Europe faces, such as rising water demand in agriculture and energy production, and tackling diffuse water pollution, such as from fertiliser and pesticide use.

The aim of EIP Water is to become a key facilitator of existing eco-innovation by bringing diverse entities from across Europe together and by identifying and removing barriers to innovation. The EIP has five thematic priorities: water reuse and recycling; water and energy; water and wastewater treatment, including recovery of resources; flood and drought risk management; and ecosystem services. EIP Water also has three crosscutting priorities: water governance, decision support systems and monitoring, and financing for innovation.

In terms of barriers, EIP Water has identified five key issues where work is needed to ensure that innovators do not face unnecessary blockages: access to finance; regulatory obstacles; barriers in public procurement; the need to fine-tune public-private partnerships; and provision of testing and demonstration sites.

Examples in practice of some of these barriers, according to Guido Schmidt, a senior policy expert who leads the EIP Water Secretariat, include problems in obtaining permits for water-innovation related activities, and mismatches in the risk-reward balance for the financing of water innovation projects.

EIP Water has set up 29 action groups with a remit to coordinate stakeholders in different fields of water innovation and to facilitate the development of solutions that will address major European and global water challenges while overcoming the barriers. Some of those action groups are working on demonstration sites, pilots and prototypes that will help take forward eco-innovation in water.

The importance of demonstration

Schmidt says that one major focus so far has been demonstration sites. EIP Water has identified about 120 demonstration sites across Europe where significant work on water-related innovation is taking place. An EIP Water online marketplace connects people and projects in the sector, provides a global overview of water innovation hubs and provides information about demonstration sites for water-related technologies that can be visited. “Lack of information about demonstration sites was one of the barriers hampering take-up of innovation,” Schmidt says.

That there is so much activity across demonstration sites shows that many innovative water technologies are “already working,” Schmidt says. One example of an EIP Water action group is ARREAU (Accelerating Resource Recovery from Water Cycle), which is working on the production of useful raw materials, such as phosphorous, cellulose and iron, from wastewater and from drinking water reserves. Technologies for the treatment of water and the recovery of such resources already exist, but these now need to be demonstrated, and plans to take the technologies to market need to be drawn up.

ARREAU will support the construction of demonstration plants capable of removing cellulose from wastewater (for example from toilet paper, which comprises up to half of the total suspended solids in urban wastewater). Cellulose fibres can then be used as a filtering aid to improve the separation of water from the sludge in wastewater, or can potentially be used in other applications, such as the manufacture of bioplastics.

Different projects have already looked at different aspects of the value chain that could emerge around recovered cellulose. Technology to separate cellulose from wastewater has been piloted at Groningen in the Netherlands, while technology to produce bioplastics from clean cellulose fibre has been tested at Beemster, also in the Netherlands. The aim is that cellulose from wastewater should move from being a low-grade residue to a high-value raw material with environmental benefits from optimised use of resources and the introduction of more efficient technologies.

Water pricing

One key issue for regulators to deal with in order to ensure that existing water technologies are more widely taken up is water pricing, according to Schmidt. Correctly calibrated water pricing schemes could ensure resources to underpin innovation and experimentation, he says.

This would enable innovators in water “to really go for the big challenges,” such as dealing with diffuse water pollution and addressing the rising demand for water for energy production, Schmidt says.

Currently, water innovation does not attract the level of private-sector funding that goes to, for example, alternative energy sources such as solar power, though availability of water resources has been identified as a top risk for the global economy, Schmidt adds. Effective pricing would create a “much higher interest” in preserving and ensuring the usability of water resources, and would help to unleash the flood of water-related technological innovation.

Further information: http://www.eip-water.eu

ARREAU action group: http://www.eip-water.eu/ARREAU

List of all EIP Water action groups: http://www.eip-water.eu/action-groups