“You become your environment. Your environment is one of the biggest influences on who you are and how you live.”
So believes Bianca Griffith, cofounder and CEO of Agua Inc., a company that provides sustainable water and wastewater treatment technology on a municipal scale. “But maybe that’s because I’m an urban planner and I’ve been brainwashed into this,” said Griffith with a laugh.
The Boulder-based company is first up in our Featured Innovators series. We sat down with Griffith to find out more about the technology behind her company, their work in The Gambia, and the future of the wastewater treatment industry.
According to Griffith, the average municipality in the U.S. spends about 30% of their electricity on water and wastewater treatment. She cites Boulder, CO as an example. The city spends $50,000 a month in electricity costs just for a wastewater treatment facility for 100,000 people.
The wastewater industry is extremely energy and chemical intensive. It is both an economic and environmental burden. Which is why even though wastewater treatment facilities are such a vital piece of infrastructure for pretty much every developed city, a lot of the world still hasn’t invested in them. About 90% of developing countries don’t have wastewater treatment at all.
Enter ABIS, the technology behind Agua Inc. ABIS utilizes a species of plants called macrophytes to oxygenate
wastewater. Macrophytes have evolved over time to be able to live in extremely contaminated environments through taking in oxygen from the atmosphere and injecting it into the water they live in through their roots.
This concept in and of itself is not revolutionary. These plants have been used for decades in lagoons and constructed wetlands. Constructed wetlands are essentially lagoons filled with gravel so the macrophytes can be planted on top. The principle is that as the wastewater flows through, the plants can put down their roots and passively aerate the water, providing oxygen to aerobic bacteria that breakdown nutrients and contaminants.
But no matter how much trash you take out of the wastewater stream, a small amount of solids ultimately make it into the system. These solids build up over time and you end up with a clogged system after not very many years. The other problem is that because you’ve filled a huge amount of space with gravel, suddenly all that space is gravel and not water. So you need huge amounts of land to execute it.
The idea behind ABIS was to marry the biology of what happens in lagoons or constructed wetlands with the accelerated process and treatment quality that comes with aeration techniques used in activated sludge. To accomplish this, Agua Inc. uses proprietary hardware that puts the plants into floatation. Known as Agua Bio-Matrixes (ABM), these specially designed flotation aids help to stabilize young macrophytes and prevent them from tipping over, improving their viability as well as installation efficiency and even growth.
In doing this, all of a sudden you have really simple system with a small footprint that uses no energy and requires no chemicals or specialized labor to operate. The system is also compelling because it is significantly cheaper to build and operate than the other options in the industry.
“The energy problem is a universal one. The sustainability problem is a universal one.” Creating an urban oasis in Gambia.
ABIS isn’t the only thing that makes Agua Inc. unique. The company is pioneering a new way of fund-procurement and capacity building for cash strapped local governments who want to take advantage of this technology.
Their first project in this space is currently running in Gambia, where Griffith has temporarily relocated. Through a public-private partnership, Agua Inc. worked with the government to privatize wastewater treatment utilities. Through a concessionary agreement with the public water utility, Agua Inc. took over all operations of a failing wastewater treatment facility. They will upgrade and operate it for 21 years, funding it through the existing service use tariffs for all customers. In the first month, Agua Inc. was able to increase revenue by 500% through management techniques and closing revenue leakages.
“For us it’s very exciting because we’re a private business so we ultimately get to make money but we’re doing it in a different way. In a project-based model, you’re really not going to see any profits until maybe a year later. Utilities are much more interesting because you have much more consistent revenue over time. It turned out to be a win-win for everybody involved,” said Griffith.
Griffith is certainly right about that. Both the public utility that was operating the facility prior to Agua Inc. and the Gambian government are now making money where they were losing it before. The citizens are happier. The facility workers are getting vaccinated against diseases.There has been a reduction in odors, contamination, and mosquito breeding.
“What’s also interesting about this is that we can really build capacity. So often what happens is that a foreign, private company will come in and develop a piece of infrastructure or program or whatever it is and because they’re not invested in the success over a long period of time they don’t build local capacity. You can’t train somebody in a new piece of technology in two months, it’s just not possible. We have a 90% Gambian-based company, eventually it will be 99%. We’re able to build local capacity, educate people on this technology, create really good long term jobs for people and also bring on a lot of the economic benefits,” said Griffith.
Agua Inc.’s ultimate goal is to turn the facility into a public park once it’s complete. “When you create green spaces in cities, people know and understand what nature looks like. One of the really fascinating things in Gambia is that you’ve got these big cities with no parks. Communities don’t value parks or don’t see them as a priority and certainly don’t want to spend government money on them. This will create one of the few oases where people can find green space,” said Griffith.
“Waste to value. That’s the end goal.” Looking at the future.
In 2014, infoDev and the World Bank published a report on clean technology in developing countries as a response to climate change. An infographic shows the number one technology that will be invested in through 2023 will be wastewater treatment - which ends up at about 2.8 trillion dollars. Wastewater will be three times higher than the second most invested-in technology in the developing world. Those cities in the 90% of the developing world without wastewater treatment are starting to realize they really do need it.
“In terms of technology, I think [biotech] is really the direction this sector will have to go in. But it’s really hard to change mindsets. Especially on infrastructure. People like machinery, people like things that move and require electricity. I think that biotech is extremely powerful and it will take a mindset change for people to understand and appreciate it.
“For us, building real installations is a big part of showing people what the future can look like. Nobody believes you until they see it. Our aim is to transform an industry that was basically a sink - a big problem for cities and trying to transform these burdens into opportunities. Like creating scenic experiences or capturing the energy byproduct that comes out of the waste stream so ultimately it’s not waste at all,” said Griffith.
“Cities are definitely a passion of mine.” Final thoughts on cities and resiliency.
By the end of our conversation, one thing about Agua Inc. was abundantly clear: it is a mission driven company. Griffith wholeheartedly believes that the power of cities is essential to and intertwined with improving quality of life and protecting the environment.
“We forget the importance of the urban fabric, we forget what our surroundings do to who we become. If we design sustainable cities that are resilient, that are beautiful places to be – that are filled with parks and places to exercise – we build communities that are happy and healthy,” said Griffith.
This conviction has led Agua Inc. to work with local governments and other entities around the world to develop wastewater treatment plans through biotech and infrastructure tailored specifically to the local needs. Helping cities adapt to climate change through creating resilient systems is becoming more important than ever.
Griffith’s final words on the subject?
“We need to look at our cities as vehicles to the types of communities we want to have and design cities around the types of lifestyles we want to have.”
You can learn more about Agua Inc. from its website.
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