Why Singapore won’t be going thirsty

TakePart/Participant Media | Nov. 5, 2015

Singapore's Marina Barrage reservoir

Singapore’s Marina Barrage reservoir. Photo credit: Public Utility Board, Singapore

In just 10 years, two out of three people will be living in a country that’s struggling to meet demand for water, according to the United Nations. But even though Singapore has no aquifers or lakes, it’s unlikely that nation’s 5.5 million residents will be among the world’s thirsty.

That’s because the small island nation, which consumes 400 million gallons daily, has a water strategy that is arguably one of the most successful in the world.

“We have four national taps,” George Madhavan, the spokesperson for Public Utility Board, Singapore’s government agency in charge of water quality, conservation, and supply, said during a recent Meeting of the Minds urban-sustainability conference in California.

The “taps” flow from desalinated seawater, recycled wastewater, water collected from rainfall, and an imported supply from neighboring Malaysia.

Having a reliable source of water has always been on the government’s agenda, Madhavan said.

“Without secure and reliable access to water in Singapore, business will not come,” he said. “So that’s a top priority to get a bigger piece of the pie.”

The push to develop a mostly self-sufficient water supply has been credited to Lee Kuan Kew, the country’s first prime minister, who took on the task in response to water shortages in the 1960s and ’70s.

It wasn’t a quick fix. It took 30 years to put the system in place.

Singapore NEWater visitor museum

The NEWater visitor museum in Singapore. (Photo credit: Public Utility Board, Singapore)

The PUB water agency says its “jewel” is the ability to recycle used water, or wastewater from sinks and toilets, into what it calls NEWater. The NEWater purification process, which Singapore launched in 2003 (after getting tips from the Orange County Water District’s wastewater-recycling plant in Southern California), meets 30 percent of daily water demand. While the recycled water is mainly used for industrial purposes, it also replenishes the country’s 17 reservoirs.

Recycled water can also supply water for drinking and cooking. According to PUB, NEWater has passed 130,000 scientific tests and exceeds the drinking water standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and guidelines issued by the World Health Organization.

Here’s what happens: The wastewater travels through a network of deep tunnel sewer pipes, then goes through conventional treatment at a sewage treatment plant. It’s then either returned to the sea or sent to one of the country’s four NEWater plants for further purification, depending on demand.

The NEWater plants follow a three-step process. First, membranes filter out small particles such as solids and bacteria. Next, reverse osmosis takes out larger contaminants. Last, the water is disinfected with ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide.

But Madhavan said the government knew a large part of successfully integrating recycled wastewater to its supply hinged on whether Singaporeans would want to drink it in the first place.

“The difficult part isn’t the technology,” he said. “It’s getting the community to embrace recycled water.”


Bottles of NEWater filled with Singapore’s purified wastewater. (Photo credit: Public Utility Board, Singapore)

To do that, the country had to get rid of the “yuck” factor. For its NEWater branding campaign, it bottled the recycled water with a label featuring a cartoon water drop with a gigantic grin—and constructed a slick visitor center showing how the purification process works via games and interactive exhibits. The water agency also brought reporters to the Orange County Water District’s water-recycling plant, as well as to one in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Another quarter of Singapore’s daily demand is met by its two desalinization plants, which together can process 100 million gallons a day. Because the plants are energy-intensive, the country is experimenting with electrodeionization, a process that consumes less power.

The third tap comes from rainwater collected from drains, canals, rivers, and storm water collection ponds. (Residents aren’t allowed to harvest water without the government’s permission.) In combination with water imports from Malaysia, the rainwater fulfills the remaining 45 percent of Singapore’s daily water needs.

PUB is preparing for a projected doubling in demand by 2060. (Singapore’s water agreement with Malaysia is set to expire in 2061.) The agency says it’s on track to triple its NEWater production and build two new desalinization plants that together will meet 80 percent of demand in 2060.

Madhavan said Singapore thinks about water in a different way.

“You don’t want to drain it—you want to collect it,” he said.


Mobile app turns city residents into agents of change

GreenBiz | March 27, 2013 | Original headline: How a civic app is turning city residents into agents of change

iCivic improvement requests resolved via PublicStuff mobile app

Civic improvement requests resolved via PublicStuff mobile app. Credit: PublicStuff

Would you turn in the girl next door for watering her lawn too much?

That’s exactly what has been happening in Plano, Texas ever since the city started using a mobile app and digital communications system. Residents can report problems in real-time ranging from environmental health hazards to water leaks, potholes, trash and broken street lights.

When the city’s water supply was under siege due to invasive zebra mussels and a simultaneous drought, the City of Plano restricted residents to watering their yards once a week, then once every other week. But with limited staff, there was no way the city could absorb the costs of monitoring and enforcement around the clock. Drive-bys noting whether lawn color was closer to brown than green wouldn’t cut it either.

Enter the mobile app and communications system the city purchased from New York City-based startup PublicStuff. Suddenly, residents who downloaded the FixIt Plano app (for free) could stop grumbling to their friends about their neighbor’s behavior — and gleefully send a hall-of-shame photo (which included the date and time the photo was snapped) documenting the excess water consumption directly to Plano City Hall instead. The location of the incident could also be mapped as well, provided the phone’s location tracking was on. And once the “report” was in the system, anyone could track its progress through receiving push notifications from city staff.

“When we enabled people to report watering violations, the use of our PublicStuff website and app really skyrocketed,” Melissa Peachey, the electronics communication manager for Plano, told GreenBiz.

Residents got so snap-happy, in fact, that in the first 19 days after FixIt Plano set up a category for water violations, 71 reports were filed.

“Being able to tag a picture to it makes it a valuable tool … The technology puts the reporting capability in their hands and they can make that report as they see [the issue],” Peachey said.

Though the watering restrictions have since been relaxed (residents are now allowed to water twice a week), the FixIt Plano app remains a convenient way for residents and city staff to keep an eye out for violations.

To date, the city has closed nearly 3,900 resident reports on the app since it debuted in 2011. Analyzing the data as a whole, Peachey says, enables Plano to make data-driven decisions for the benefit of citizens and city budgets. One such decision that might be made based on FixIt Plano data is where the city will spray for mosquitoes as a means of controlling potential West Nile Virus carriers. The city will map the locations of dead birds reported by residents and look out for areas of high concentration. A pop-up message informing that a dead bird was spotted, along with instructions on how to dispose of one in a safe manner, will be sent out to residents after the original report was filed, according to Peachey.

National push to use technology and open data for city problem-solving

Plano is just one of many cities using mobile technology to do a better job of tracking problems with the help of residents. These innovators are using open data collected by and from the local population to better plan emergency responses, city services and manage everyday occurrences such as traffic jams.

While about 200 cities (including Philadelphia, one of the pioneers of using open data and civic hackers for public good) have purchased the PublicStuff software and app that are customizable with widgets of their choice, others have signed up with competitors SeeClickFix and Citysourced to give residents access to city hall by reporting via their mobile devices.

In an update of PublicStuff’s mobile app released last week, non-English speaking residents can send in requests in their native language, and their message will be automatically translated into English for the city workers — and vice versa.

How’s it working so far? “We’ve gotten a lot of good feedback,” PublicStuff co-founder and CEO Lily Liu told GreenBiz. “We want to be sensitive to different words used in local languages and let people know that there are some sorts of modifications to the text. Obviously that will affect someone’s response and we’re building in a mechanism for that,” she said. PublicStuff also wants to make sure that its system recognizes colloquial words like “graffiti,” Liu added.

Increased communication between city staff and residents — along with increasing civic engagement — are not the only benefits for the multitudes of cash-strapped cities that have been forced to cut back on city services and staff in recent years. According to Liu, cities using her company’s products have been able to free up much-needed staff time from taking reports over the phone. Users can also pay their municipal bills and parking tickets on PublicStuff.

The service can also facilitate quick communication of crucial information during emergencies when power lines might be down, Liu said.

“Before Hurricane Sandy, cities sent out information on how to prepare, and during the hurricane residents sent in notes on the system rather than bogging down 911 lines, so critical resources weren’t tied up,” she said.

Liu, who was recognized in December by Forbes as a “30 Under 30” social entrepreneur, co-founded PublicStuff with Vincent Polidoro (now the company’s Chief Technology Officer) in 2010. The initial beta version of PublicStuff was released at the end of that year, and it was tested in a few cities in early 2011. The company is backed by FirstMark Capital venture capital firm and the Knight Enterprise Fund.

A former staffer for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Liu was inspired to develop the product after noticing that there was a gap in services for government agencies that wanted a better way to communicate with the public. None of the vendors, products or price points were accessible for cities, she said.

The cost for cities to install the PublicStuff software and use an app depends on the population size — anywhere between $1,000 for small cities and “more than $20,000” for large cities, according to Liu.

Plano did not say whether it has saved money from using PublicStuff, though Adrian Hummel, the electronic media specialist for the city who works on the back end of the system daily, observed that many of the reports sent in are closed within 24 hours.

“Some remain longer,” he said. “Obviously a pothole or street repair will take longer than [picking up] a dead animal.”

Inside the military’s billion-plus push for renewables

Story by Kristine A. Wong
This piece was originally published on GreenBiz on Aug. 22, 2012 with a headline of “Inside the military’s multibillion-dollar push for renewables”

As the largest consumer of energy in the world, the Department of Defense has a long way to go before becoming a sustainable operation.

But a recent push to purchase 3 gigawatts (GW) of locally generated renewable energy is opening up billions of dollars in market opportunities — and it’s not just energy companies that stand to benefit. Companies that can finance these deals also stand to carve out a substantial piece of this pie.

The military’s goal?

To become more energy independent.

“By diversifying our installation energy sources to include sustainable, reliable energy, we improve our ability to fulfill our mission during energy interruptions and to better manage price volatility,” said Katherine Hammack, U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Army for installations, energy & environment.

Plans are underway for the Army, Navy and Air Force to each deploy 1 GW of renewable energy on U.S. bases by 2025, an effort announced in April. The 3 GW goal is tied to a 2007 DOD initiative to source 25 percent of its energy from renewables by 2025.

It’s one of the largest commitments to clean energy in history, according to the White House.

Three gigawatts are equivalent to the amount needed to power 750,000 homes, said Hammack.

The military will purchase the power generated through privately owned solar, wind, geothermal or biomass facilities under power purchase agreements.

Companies can build their facilities on military bases or on some of the 16 million acres of military land recently opened for renewable energy development. They will be expected to own and maintain the facilities, as well as arrange private sector financing for its construction and operation.

One aim of the effort is to develop energy security on U.S. military bases, according to DOD spokeswoman Lt. Col. Melinda Morgan.

“Together with smart microgrid and storage technologies, renewable and other forms of on-site energy will allow a military base to maintain its critical operations ‘off-grid’ for weeks or months if necessary,” said Morgan.

Noteworthy opportunities for experienced developers, investors
Billions of dollars in federal funds will be available to the private sector in contracts for the purchase of renewable energy.

“This is an end-of-the-game market creator for renewable energy and cleantech,” said Taite McDonald, a senior advisor at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati (WSGR) in Washington, D.C. who advises energy and clean technology companies interested in working with government.

Opportunities are materializing. Earlier this month, the Army took an important step forward in laying the foundation to fulfill its commitment of deploying 1 GW of renewable energy. The Army Corps of Engineers released a call for companies to bid for up to $7 billion of contracts to purchase energy from renewable facilities that will be installed on military land.
The contracts –- in the form of power purchase agreements, or contracts that define the terms between buyers and sellers of electricity – could be in place for as long as 30 years. More likely, though, they’ll be 23 to 25 years in length, according to McDonald.

The number of contractors is dependent on the capabilities and qualifications of the bids the Army receives, said Hammack. It’s also dependent on the type of energy that’s supplied and the size of those projects. One gigawatt can be generated through 10 very large projects, 100 medium-sized projects or 500 small projects, according to Hammack.

The Navy is now soliciting feedback regarding what type of projects industry may want to build on its bases such as the Naval Air Weapons Station in China Lake, Calif. It’s planning to continue the process with other bases in the future, according to McDonald.

As for the Air Force, McDonald predicts it will likely start to release more opportunities for building renewable projects with enhanced-use leases in the coming months. The first step in the process to develop such an opportunity is now underway at the Ramey Air Force Base in Puerto Rico.

In the future, more requests for proposals focused on purchase power agreements are likely to become available, McDonald said.

Getting qualified under the Army’s $7 billion opportunity

Those qualified to be renewable energy contractors for the Army have demonstrated the ability to finance, design, build, operate, own and maintain their own energy facilities, Hammack said.

“If your company qualifies under this opportunity, you can go after up to $7 billion in contracts –- we call it a hunting license,” said McDonald.

Throughout the last year –- as a service to help educate and prepare companies for this contract opportunity –- McDonald and colleagues have acted as advisors-for-hire with several renewable energy companies, developers and investors interested in getting their “hunting licenses.”

A significant number of developers, small businesses and defense contractors have been preparing for this announcement for some time, McDonald said.

She estimates that while Army Energy Initiative Task Force officials have met with about 150 entities, only 50 will qualify as prime contractors for hunting licenses. The Army Corps of Engineers will evaluate all applicants.

According to McDonald, those best positioned to qualify are experienced renewable energy project developers and operators — not those who are selling technology in the developing stage. Most of the opportunities will be for purchase power agreements for solar, she added.

“Unless you are a very large and reputable developer that has just recently begun to learn about this opportunity, you probably want to join other teams instead of submitting a proposal to be a prime contractor,” she said.

But small businesses shouldn’t fear being edged out of competition by their larger counterparts. Projects that are slated to produce less than four megawatts of energy will be reserved for small businesses first. Those that fall in the 4-12 MW capacity range may be reserved for small businesses as well, depending on the project size, complexity and level of financing required. Projects over 12 MW in capacity are open for unrestricted competition.

And there are still opportunities available for investors who can bring capital to the table as well as finance commercial projects.

“That’s where we’re seeing the most gaps,” McDonald said.

The Army will likely announce the firms that are qualified for its $7 billion in contracts during the first quarter of 2013, she predicted.

Three to six months after determining which companies are qualified, the Army will issue its first task orders, Hammack said. Task orders detail contracts available for bidding, including the energy capacity of the project and the type of technology to be used.

“At least 100 megawatts in task orders will be issued a year,” Hammack said.

Hammack said the task orders are currently being determined by the Army Energy Initiative Task Force through environmental analyses of more than 180 military installations. After evaluating the natural resources available at each site, the task force will match it with the technology best suited for the site and calculate the amount of energy that can be generated onsite.

Companies whose technology is not ready to scale at a commercial level need not despair. There are a number of demonstration opportunities with the military services and with the Office of the Secretary of Defense that will become available next year, McDonald said.

Photo of wind turbines courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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