The Energy and Resources Factory – a collaborative venture by the joint Dutch water boards
The Energy and Resources Factory is a collaborative venture by the Netherlands’ 21 water boards. It is an organization that is focused on turning wastewater into a source of renewable energy and resources.
At the organization's so-called energy and resources plants, energy and resources are reclaimed from wastewater. The idea came about by taking a different approach to waste. Instead of asking, ‘What do we do with it?’, the question became, ‘What can we use it for?’ Phosphate, cellulose, polymers, alginate, bioplastics, and CO2 are all extracted from wastewater, following which companies can use these resources in their products and processes. This is how the Netherlands’ water boards are helping to create a circular economy.
The first water boards in the Netherlands were set up as early as in the year 1200. They were the first body with a democratically chosen administration and are among the Netherlands’ oldest institutions. United in the Association of Regional Water Authorities, the Netherlands’ water boards are tasked with protecting the people against flooding and making sure they have clean and sufficient water. The Energy and Resources Factory is a joint undertaking by all of the Netherlands’ water boards.
One part of a water board’s job is to treat wastewater at sewage treatment plants before discharging it into the surface water. After treating wastewater, what remains is sludge. By letting this sludge ferment, biogas is generated, which is subsequently converted into green power. At present, the Netherlands’ water boards produce 120 million cubic meters of biogas between them, which is enough to provide a city of over 150,000 inhabitants with power for one whole year. Besides energy, wastewater also contains resources that can be used to make a wide range of products, such as bioplastic, building materials for asphalt, and artificial fertilizer.
To extract, process, and distribute this energy and these resources as efficiently as possible, the water boards have set up a collaborative venture called the Energy and Resources Factory, a concept that is unique in the world. The Energy and Resources Factory is a multifaceted organization. There are dozens of energy and resources plants that are already operational or about to go live where energy and resources are being extracted. On top of that, the Energy and Resources Factory comprises an overarching platform where knowledge and skills with respect to the recovery, processing, and distribution are brought together and shared. Waterboard employees are empowered to try out their ideas and innovative and unorthodox working methods by just doing it. In 2015, the first kilogram of bioplastic extracted from wastewater was produced using a technique that had never been used before. By joining forces in the Energy and Resources Factory, the water boards are creating greater volume and showing a unified outward identity. In partnership with fellow public bodies, knowledge institutions, companies, and society, the aim is to create a circular economy and a sustainable living environment. The target is to be able to turn all Dutch wastewater into valuable products by 2050.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The Energy and Resources Factory takes a different approach to the traditional wastewater treatment process. On the level of the actual factories, their approach constitutes a technical innovation. Entirely new methods and techniques are conceived, developed, and applied. On the level of the network organization, the idea is to go off the beaten path. They are constantly pushing the boundary of what is legally possible, but also in terms of the water boards’ remit. Initially, the question was whether supplying energy and resources would fit within a water board’s set of duties. In 2013, the relevant minister informed the lower house of Dutch parliament that current legislation offers the water boards the required scope to be able to take on the intended activities.
What is the current status of your innovation?
The Energy and Resources Factory is now also running experiments with different ways of extracting resources from wastewater. The organization has seen the resource-oriented mindset grow at the water boards, as they increasingly see wastewater as a source of resources. New factories are also being set up, such as the Water Factory and the Climate Factory. The Water Factory is used to run pilots where ozone and nanotechnologies are used to remove pharmaceutical residues from the water. The resulting water is so clean that industrial and agriculture consumers can use it as and when they need it. The Climate Factory, which is currently under development, is intended to find ways to make wastewater treatment an integral part in creating a better living environment.
The Energy and Resources Factory is a driving force for the development of water boards, giving them perspective for action in making the most of the potential of wastewater.
Collaborations & Partnerships
In 2008, the Association of Regional Water Authorities held a competition for ideas about the water board of the future. At the time, many water boards were already trying to be more responsible in their energy consumption. Fourteen water boards joined the initiative and worked out the business cases, which led to the creation of the Energy Factory as a network organization. In the Factory, knowledge, and skills are shared and water board employees are empowered to try out innovative ideas.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
By organizing an annual conference, presentations, events, and generating media exposure, the organization raises the water boards’ profile and awareness of the circular economy among citizens. The Energy and Resources Factory is often approached by third parties for initiatives, and knowledge is developed in partnership with public bodies, businesses, educational institutions, and research institutions.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
At twelve locations in the Netherlands, energy plants have been set up, while a further nine are being built and possibilities for more plants are explored at twelve other locations. This makes the water boards jointly one of the Netherlands’ largest biogas producers, with considerable growth potential. Phosphate extraction has been set up at eight locations, with preparations underway at five further locations. Phosphate is being extracted from the ashes produced by the burning of sludge at two locations. Cellulose is being sourced from wastewater at various locations and has been used to make high-grade packaging materials as well as in the construction of several provincial roads. Other developments include separating biogas in methane and CO2, possibilities to increase water reuse, preparations for a pilot plant for the production of bioplastics, and investments in alginate. This latter product has proven to be effective as a coating for use in the concrete and paper industry.
Challenges and Failures
The Energy and Resources Factory has grown into a large network of factories. There are major differences in how the various supply chains have developed. Some of the resources are ready for the market and require work to increase volumes, ensure supply security, and guarantee steady quality. Other resources are still in the pilot stage and need extensive research. The Energy and Resources Factory’s network is, therefore, made up of water board professionals with different skill sets, ranging from freethinkers to people with a focus on structure, and from subject experts to managers and administrators.
For market-ready resources, funding is a bottleneck. These innovations at the Energy and Resources Factory are often large-scale and therefore very costly and time-consuming, meaning that water boards need to invest heavily. The Energy and Resources Factory is looking into ways to fund projects that could help them get out of the so-called ‘valley of death’.
Conditions for Success
An important step leading to the Energy and Resources Factory's success was that the water boards simply got started. After some time, they made choices on which resources to reclaim, giving the Energy and Resources Factory a clearer focus.
Another important success factor was the support the Energy and Resources Factory received from administrators. Water boards freed up funds and allowed their employees to work on innovation. Visionary water board chairmen ultimately made the Energy and Resources Factory happen. Concurrently, the national government implemented policies in the area of the energy transition and the circular economy that also strengthened the Energy and Resources Factory’s approach.
The Energy and Resources Factory organizes conferences to share knowledge and, where possible, match supply and demand, thus strengthening ties with their own network as well.
The concept of a water board as an autonomous public-sector organization is unique in the world. It is this autonomous status that greatly facilitated the creation of the Energy and Resources Factory in the Netherlands. Water authorities in other countries can, however, still adopt the Energy and Resources Factory model and use it as a way to take an innovative approach to wastewater. For an innovation such as this one to succeed, it is important, however, that water authorities seek to strike up partnerships, both between themselves across organizational boundaries and with the business community and resource users.
The general perception of the role of public organizations is also important in this context. Is it up to the public sector to reclaim resources from wastewater and sell these, or should it be left to the market? Owing to the public interest involved, the Energy and Resources Factory opted to go down the route of innovation.
The Energy and Resources Factory is a driving force for developments at water boards, giving them a line of action to jointly work on and accelerate innovations. It has taught the water boards to take a different approach to the role they can fulfill in society. They can pioneer when it comes to innovative uses of wastewater and contribute to creating a circular economy and furthering the energy transition. Collaboration enables the water boards to set up a supply chain and sell the resources. The Energy and Resources Factory is also looking ahead, developing a vision on how the water treatment methods of the future can help improve the living environment, which will offer the water board scope for action.
In the case of the Energy and Resources Factory, it was not about one single innovation that went through all the stages of the 4F model for innovation (fiddle, flow, focus, fit in). The Energy and Resources Factory was set up for continuous innovation. They are always working on multiple innovations at the same time, and these innovations are generally all in different stages of the innovation process. The Energy and Resources Factory needs, therefore, freethinkers and doers to lead the way and just get started with collaboration across organizational boundaries, but also people who provide direction and implement the innovations. The Energy and Resources Factory has set up its organization with this in mind.