How sewage could become an energy resource for Arctic communities

Sludge-to-energy systems are a sustainable solution to two problems remote Arctic communities face.

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An industrial sludge-to-energy plant operates in Germany. Smaller scale versions of such technology could help remote Arctic communities manage waste and be more energy independent. (Norbert Nagel / CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

What if you could create sustainable energy just by flushing the toilet?

While sewage is often perceived as a burden rather than a resource, communities around the world are using waste to generate energy and offset negative environmental impacts. Systems that transform sludge — a byproduct of wastewater treatment — to energy can make this a reality for many Arctic communities, addressing not one but two challenges: sustainable energy independence and sewage waste management.

A sludge-to-energy project in Xiangyang City, Hubei Provence, China is already cutting pollution and is on track to achieve its energy production goals, showing that these projects offer real economic and energy benefits. In Nunavut, in Canada’s Arctic, researchers are introducing BEAST technology, or Bioelectrochemical Anaerobic Sewage Treatment, that can treat waste on a small scale and has the potential to generate energy when applied at a larger scale.

The main barriers to widespread implementation are funding and technology awareness, but the basic need for these systems and the potential for significant benefit is present. In Xiangyang City, a public-private partnership helped the project achieve the required investment to begin operation, and a similar approach might be appropriate for the Arctic.

Some remote Arctic communities rely on sewage lagoons for wastewater storage. While the process varies by community, wastewater is often dumped into a shared pool. These lagoons are not held to high treatment standards and can lead to the ocean, presenting risks to human and environmental health. Those who haul the waste to the lagoon face health risks associated with exposure, and as wastewater runs to ocean, residents face the risk of food or water contamination related to untreated sewage. Although sewage lagoons have been in use for generations, rapid expansions of Arctic populations and dramatic increases in tourism will only make sewage waste management increasingly difficult.

At the same time, many Arctic communities depend on diesel for their energy supply. Diesel is expensive to transport, especially to remote areas, and can vary widely in terms of cost. When communities rely heavily on diesel, they are more susceptible to global market variations or shortages in diesel supply. Renewable energy provides the benefit of increased energy independence – communities can generate a portion of their own energy supply and not be entirely dependent on outside sources. This independence also increases community ownership of energy creation, engaging more local people in the value of their energy supply and creating a shared sense of capacity and sustainability. Creating this shared sense of capacity can help communities recognize their own strengths and inspire a mindset of resilience that makes the community stronger.

Reducing diesel use would have multiple benefits, such as cost savings and reduced emissions, but there currently is not enough renewable energy supply to make this happen. Arctic communities need a more reliable supply of renewable energy that is both relatively inexpensive and technologically appropriate for reliability in remote areas.

But how could these issues be reshaped if it were possible to use sewage to create renewable energy? Sludge-to-energy technology can help answer this question. The sludge-to-energy process generates biogas which can be used to power on-site operations or can be processed into natural gas and used as energy for heating, electricity, and even vehicle fuel.

Sludge-to-energy systems reduce greenhouse gas emissions in two ways: by offsetting diesel usage and by capturing methane from wastewater. Wastewater accounts for roughly 7 percent of global methane emissions, but a sludge-to-energy system captures methane for energy use.

A demonstration sludge-to-energy project would show that this is a viable path forward for Arctic communities. The best place to locate such a project could be a community that expects to see large increases in tourism, as both waste volume and demand for energy will increase. Alternatively, the best place to locate a project like this could be a community with very little existing wastewater infrastructure, where investments would have the most significant impact in the shortest amount of time.

While such a project would almost certainly involve construction of new wastewater treatment infrastructure, it is critically important that development focuses on two key considerations: 1) the technology must be resilient to the challenges of remote Arctic areas, including cold temperatures and infrequent access to machinery repairs; and 2) members of the community must be trained in the operation, maintenance, and repair of the system and should eventually become fully responsible for its upkeep.

If local community members are given the opportunity to learn new skills and manage the system, this project would result in economic and employment benefits in addition to the environmental benefits already described. A sludge-to-energy project should rely on all stakeholders’ input throughout the entire planning and implementation process. Local community members should have the final say in whether the project occurs, and where and when it should be implemented, based on their unique knowledge of community needs and the potential for costs and benefits.

Why should technology developers, waste-to-energy companies, or governments invest in this project? As Arctic populations grow and tourism increases, energy and sewage challenges only promise to get worse. We need a solution to confront both challenges, while also reducing emissions and creating local job opportunities. Turning sludge to energy is that solution. Governments, citizens, and organizations should consider how funding and constructing the necessary infrastructure for a sludge to energy project would improve communities’ sustainability and address broader environmental and health goals. Using something as ubiquitous as waste, we can tackle climate change and create a sustainable future.

Katie Segal is a first-year Master in Public Policy student and Louis Bacon Environmental Leadership Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

This piece is one of a series of op-eds written by students of the Arctic Innovators Course at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Arctic Initiative. You can read the full series on this site.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Arctic Initiative or Arctic Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary (at) arctictoday.com.