Department of Energy Releases Water Savings White Paper focused on Manufacturing Best Practices


Andre de Fontaine
May 03, 2016

Manufacturers are increasingly trying to get a better handle on their water use. Cutting water use can reduce costs, mitigate risks, and lessen environmental impacts. As population growth, climate change, and drought put additional pressure on certain watersheds, the business imperative for better water management will likely grow. And since it takes energy to treat and transport water, water management should be considered an important part of any company’s energy management strategy.

The Department of Energy today released a white paper for manufacturers seeking guidance on establishing a water management strategy. The paper distills lessons the Department learned from working with the seven industrial partners that initially signed on to the Better Buildings Challenge Water Savings Pilot: Cummins, Ford, General Motors, Harbec, Nissan North America, Saint-Gobain, and United Technologies Corporation (UTC). The pilot, which ran from May 2014 to May 2015, has since been expanded to become a regular feature of the Better Buildings Challenge, and now counts more than 30 partners across sectors that are setting water savings goals in addition to their energy efficiency targets.

The Better Plants paper, Developing a Corporate Water Management Strategy for Manufacturers, addresses key questions manufacturers commonly face as they gear up to take action on water use, including: how to make the business case for water saving projects; what facilities should initial efforts be targeted towards; what metrics can be used to track progress; and what are other companies doing to reduce water use? Guidance on these questions was developed based on interviews with, and data collected from, the pilot partners. For example:

Making the business case. Water is still relatively inexpensive, though costs are rising in many locations. Making a business case for water saving projects can be challenging when basing the analysis on monthly water bills alone. Cummins takes a more holistic view of water costs, factoring in the energy and chemical costs needed to pump and treat the water. Cummins has found that the “true cost” of water is 3-5 times the water intake and sewer charge and sometimes as high as 10-12 times for high energy and water-intensive operations.

Targeting initial efforts. While all companies followed DOE’s guidance to set a water-savings goal that covered all their U.S. manufacturing operations, they tended to focus initial efforts on those plants that used the most water or were located in areas where water supplies were scarce or under stress. UTC uses a tool developed by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development to categorize its facilities on the basis of available water suppliers. It requires the sites in the most water stressed areas to implement all of a series of internally developed water management practices; those in areas where water availability is less of a concern implement fewer of these practices.

Metrics. Five of the seven pilot partners set water-intensity targets, typically measured as volume of water per unit of output, or labor hours in one case. Intensity metrics have the advantage of capturing the effects of water efficiency efforts even as the business grows or contracts. Absolute metrics, on the other hand, can be more reflective of a company’s water risks, if it operates in a region with current or projected supply constraints.

What are other companies doing? The range of water-saving actions varied widely by partner, but the ability for no- and low-cost projects—things like leak repairs, adjusting control valves, and installing low flow fixtures—to yield substantial savings was a common theme. As an example of a more capital intensive project, Harbec built a 900,000 gallon rainwater retention pond that will help the company meet its goal of eliminating the use of municipal-supplied water for all needs other than drinking and hand washing.

Concerns about the cost and availability of water supplies will likely grow in the coming years. Companies that begin actively managing their water risks today will be better prepared to face these challenges in the future. DOE will continue working with the partners in its Water Savings Initiative to better understand the barriers impeding progress on water efficiency and developing solutions that will benefit the whole market. Look for these and other water savings solutions on the Better Buildings Solution Center and other forums such as the annual Better Buildings Summit.