Water Scarcity

Water Scarcity

Water is essential for life.  It is a necessity for direct human consumption and food production, as well as for many other aspects of people’s lives, from basic sanitation to manufacturing everyday goods and producing energy. The demand for fresh water continues to increase as the world’s population increases. Availability is becoming an increasing concern in key regions of the world. This is a critical point: water is fundamentally a local issue. Watersheds are largely independent of one another, some having ample supplies of fresh water where various needs can coexist easily, others having a much more limited supply and a different set of needs.

Thinking about water scarcity therefore requires us to understand two aspects: the availability of freshwater in a region, and the capacity of that region to manage the local water systems effectively. While there are challenges, there are also some clear paths to solutions through risk identification and management, effective policy development, and technology implementation. GE is committed to being part of the solution.

Water Risk Management

GE has a tiered approach to identifying, anticipating and addressing potential impacts to its business operations from water-related emergencies such as water scarcity, interruptions of our local supply, or flooding. All our operations, and especially our manufacturing sites and service operations, are subject to GE’s environmental, health and safety (EHS) policy and EHS management system.  GE’s environmental framework requires the sites to characterize their wastewater use, to manage it in compliance with local requirements, and to ensure that it is properly treated before discharge, in most cases into municipal treatment systems.

GE requires every facility to develop a risk “heat map” of potential EHS risks to their operations. The exercise requires site and service leaders to identify and categorize EHS risks and potential external threats to their operations, and to detail strategies for defending against and mitigating each category of risk.

Once a risk such as the potential for water supply disruption or flooding is identified, the operational leader is required to develop a mitigation plan. Given the local nature of most water scarcity issues and the strong ownership GE’s operational leaders have over EHS performance, we rely on them to understand their community issues and establish appropriate response plans. These are reviewed at least biannually in Session E forums and through our EHS auditing process.

As part of our ecomagination goal to reduce our freshwater consumption 25% by 2015, GE has a special program for those locations that consume more than 15 million gallons of freshwater a year. These locations account for approximately 90% of GE’s total freshwater usage. GE’s Global Research Center reviewed the 65 sites that used more than 15 million gallons of freshwater in 2012 against the Maplecroft Water Stress Index. Five sites were identified as in potentially extremely water-scarce regions (Water Stress Index (WSI) ≥0.7), and 19 additional sites were identified as in areas with a medium level of water scarcity (WSI between 0.40 and 0.7). Overall, 1.08 billion gallons or 15% of the total freshwater consumption in 2012 was in water-scarce areas. GE’s use of freshwater consumed in water scare areas decreased 2.5% in 2012 vs. 2011.

Of most concern to us were the sites in developing countries that historically have had less ability to react in the event of a potential water shortage becoming a reality. For example, our research center in Bangalore, India, is in a region Maplecroft categorizes as one with extreme water scarcity. The facility underwent a major upgrade of its wastewater treatment system, installing GE technology, plus other changes that have reduced per capita water usage by 35% from 2006 to 2012. 

The remaining sites we identified in developing countries were in China (5) and Mexico (1). The majority of the sites located in China are in the greater Shanghai region. These Shanghai area sites’ usage, compared to total water usage in the region, is minute—GE water usage in 2012 was equivalent to 0.004% of Shanghai’s 2008 water usage—but we expect to see additional opportunities to reduce usage at these sites. In 2013, we will be hosting a water Kaizen training event in the region to begin building the skill level of our local teams to anticipate water scarcity and to reduce water use. Through 2014, the remaining sites in potentially water-scarce areas will be prioritized for Kaizen events.

Water in Our Supply Chain

GE has a large and complex supply chain. We looked at some of the available reporting tools to evaluate GE’s supply chain water risk and concluded that we needed more direct means to understand it than just asking for usage metrics. As with our internal water use, we decided to concentrate our actions on those locations with less ability to manage their resources. These regions, as reflected in the UN’s World Risk Scores, are the same regions subject to on-site assessment in our Ethical Supply Chain Program.

We have required suppliers to comply with local legal requirements, including obtaining water permits, since the inception of the program. This requirement is included in our assessment tool. In 2012, we included water supply and management in a new management systems tool we are using to guide suppliers to long-term improvement. Starting in 2013, the tool also looks at whether suppliers understand their water source and have communicated with their local authorities on potential supply risks.

We plan to use life cycle–based screening approaches combined with industry insight to identify sectors in the supply chain where selective engagement can yield real benefit. Our experience has been that effective application of screening tools helps us focus our supplier engagement activities.

As we gain more experience with all of these approaches, we anticipate including the management of potential water supply risks in the training we make available to our suppliers in developing countries.

For more information about supply chain management.

Water Kaizen Blitz

GE has found water Kaizen events to be an especially effective strategy for analyzing and reducing water use at our facilities. Originally adopted from Toyota in 2009, and subsequently optimized to suit the manufacturing needs and culture of GE, the Water Kaizen Blitz is a process that we have widely leveraged across our top water-using sites. We set up teams with a very precise mix of skills to systematically evaluate processes that use water at our manufacturing sites, and identify opportunities (“kaizens”) for water reduction. The team works with the site, which must do a significant amount of preparation in advance of the Kaizen, to ensure a thorough engineering analysis during the event.

A Kaizen generally lasts about three days.  During the first day the teams will learn the Kaizen process and tools, then walk the plant floor, visiting each of the water-using processes and talking with operators to develop an understanding of how, why and when water is used. During this stage the teams will develop a mass balance on the water usage for each piece of equipment and develop very rough concepts of potential opportunities for water reduction. This step often involves flow-measuring with GE Sensing clamp-on ultrasonic flow meters. Water flow through a facility is not intuitive, and there is a need for engineering from facilities and others to locate and identify piping conveyances, helping the team understand how and where water comes into and out of each process. The team will take their list of ideas and expand on them, determining technical limitations, costs, savings and more.  A strong emphasis is placed upon ensuring that costs are realistic. At the end of the event, the site is provided with the package of opportunities identified during the event, as well as corresponding cost and benefit information.

On average, these events provide sites with an opportunity to reduce water usage by 30%–50%, with less than two years’ payback. Through 2012, we have conducted 18 Kaizen Blitzes focused on our top water-using sites.

In 2011, GE developed the Virtual Water Kaizen Blitz (Virtual Kaizen). The Virtual Kaizen is tailored to greenfield (new construction) sites. To provide maximum benefit, this process is ideally conducted during the early- to mid-design stages for a site. The Virtual Kaizen focuses on the design, identifying optimizations to reduce, reuse and recycle water. The Virtual Kaizen provides much more freedom to recycle. Because the site is not yet built, associated project costs tend to be much more favorable, opening up greater opportunities for water reduction. Through 2012, we have conducted three Virtual Kaizens and plan to continue to use this process for all medium-size and large water-using greenfield sites. As one example, we performed a Virtual Kaizen for our battery plant in Schenectady, New York. The event identified opportunities (with less than two years’ payback) to reduce the site’s projected water use by 81%, while saving $1M per year. The vast majority of these water savings come through leveraging GE Water membrane technologies that allow for purification and recycling of wastewater. As another example, a Virtual Kaizen at our Ft. Worth, Texas, site identified opportunities to reduce projected water use by 52% while saving an estimated $230,000 per year.   

GE ecomagination Water Goal

In May 2008, we announced our goal to reduce our freshwater consumption by 20% in 2012 from a baseline of 2006. In early 2009, we modified the goal to a 25% reduction by 2015. GE annually collects water data for those sites consuming more than 15 million gallons a year. This includes water used for potable, process, and sanitary purposes as well as once-through cooling waters from freshwater sources. We adjust the data each year to reflect acquisitions and divestments.

In 2012, GE’s fresh water use was 7.43 billion gallons, a 46% reduction from the 2006 baseline, and a 18% decrease from 2011.

Factors contributing to the observed decrease over last year’s results include the following:

  • Successful implementation of Kaizen Blitz water reduction opportunities at select sites
  • Product testing campaigns (decrease in once-through cooling water use)

Another action underway will potentially reduce GE’s global water use up to an estimated 5% as a result of a large project at one of our U.S. plants. This project will utilize GE Water & Process Technology equipment including membrane technologies to recycle and reuse water. We anticipate the new system will be operational by 2015.

Due to the enormous success of the Kaizen Blitz activities since 2008, we will begin to target those sites located in water-scarce areas in 2014.

Considering divestiture and acquisition events as well as product testing campaign activities in 2013 and beyond, variability in our metrics will continue to exist for the duration of the goal-time horizon.

2006

Overall freshwater use:

Total: 13.8 billion gallons

Once-Through Cooling: 8.89 billion gallons

2012

Overall freshwater use:

Total: 7.43 billion gallons

Once-Through Cooling: 3.92 billion gallons

Freshwater use by source:

Public/Commercial: 4.61 billion gallons (62.09%)

River/Canal: 1.85 billion gallons (24.86%)

Onsite groundwater wells: 0.92 billion gallons (12.34%)

Other: 0.052 billion gallons (0.7%)

Water Scarcity

As part of our ecomagination goal to reduce our freshwater consumption 25% by 2015, GE has a special program for those locations that consume more than 15 million gallons of freshwater a year. These locations account for approximately 90% of GE’s total freshwater usage. GE’s Global Research Center reviewed the 65 sites that used more than 15 million gallons of freshwater in 2012 against the Maplecroft Water Stress Index. Five sites were identified as in potentially extremely water-scarce regions (Water Stress Index (WSI) ≥0.7), and 19 additional sites were identified as in areas with a medium level of water scarcity (WSI between 0.40 and 0.7). Overall, 1.08 billion gallons or 15% of the total freshwater consumption in 2012 was in water-scarce areas. GE’s use of freshwater consumed in water-scare areas decreased 2.5% in 2012 vs. 2011.

Of most concern to us were the sites in developing countries that historically have had less ability to react in the event of a potential water shortage becoming a reality.  For example, our research center in Bangalore, India, is in a region Maplecroft categorizes as one with extreme water scarcity. The facility underwent a major upgrade of its wastewater treatment system, installing GE technology (membrane bioreactor using Z-Weed ultrafiltration membranes), plus other changes that have reduced per capita water usage by 35% from 2006 to 2012.

The remaining sites we identified in developing countries were in China (5) and Mexico (1). The majority of the sites located in China are in the greater Shanghai region. These Shanghai area sites’ usage, compared to total water usage in the region, is minute—GE water usage in 2012 was equivalent to 0.004% of Shanghai’s 2008 water usage—but we expect to see additional opportunities to reduce usage at these sites. In 2013, we will be hosting a water Kaizen training event in the region to begin building the skill level of our local teams to anticipate water scarcity and to reduce water use. Through 2014, the remaining sites in potentially water-scarce areas will be prioritized for Kaizen events.

Water-Use Inventory Process

GE annually collects water data for those sites consuming more than 15 million gallons a year. This includes water used for potable, process and sanitary purposes, as well as once-through cooling waters from freshwater sources. Two GE sites withdraw salt/brackish water for once-through cooling purposes. This salt/brackish water use is excluded from our water inventory and is not included as part of our water reduction goal. Instead, we focus on freshwater sources, with the rationale that salt/brackish water employed for once-through cooling purposes poses less of an environmental impact than freshwater. We adjust the data each year to reflect acquisitions and divestitures.

The GE water inventory follows the principles of the World Resources Institute/World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WRI/WBCSD) “Greenhouse Gas Protocol: A Corporate Accounting and Reporting Standard, Revised Edition” (2004) (the “Protocol”). For its operational inventory, GE follows the “control” approach and includes freshwater use from Criteria Sites over which it has operational control. Criteria Sites are those sites that used a total of 15 million gallons or more of water per year in the 2006 baseline year and/or any subsequent year in the inventory. GE limits its water-use data collection to Criteria Sites to maximize data collection from its largest water-using sites while minimizing the data collection effort. We used historical data to develop reporting criteria for the water inventory with the goal of capturing at least 90% of our total freshwater consumption in the annual inventory.

GE created an Eco Inventory Survey intranet-based database in Gensuite®, which is a proprietary Web-based EHS management system, to collect the necessary water-use inventory data. GE included 98 Criteria Sites in its worldwide water inventory for 2012. The Eco Inventory Survey database is integrated with GE’s greenhouse gas and energy inventory process.

GE’s original 2006 water inventory included 101 Criteria Sites. The change in the number of facilities from 2006 to 2012 is the net of those facilities removed from the inventory because of divestiture, closure or consolidation with other facilities, and those facilities added to the inventory because they were acquired, were newly established, or because they newly met the reporting criteria.

The Eco Inventory Survey database allows each site to enter the quantity of water withdrawn in consistent units from each of the following source categories:

  • Public/Commercial
  • River/Canal
  • Lake
  • Onsite Groundwater Wells
  • Ocean (not included in water inventory, nor water-reduction goal)
  • Other

These data represent the total facility water use for all purposes. The site then enters the quantity of the total water that is withdrawn for once-through cooling purposes. The Eco Inventory Survey is programmed to calculate the total facility water use by totaling the water withdrawn from each source category and to calculate the quantity of once-through cooling water. The combined quantity of potable, process and sanitary water use can be calculated by subtracting the once-through cooling water use from the total water use. The Eco Inventory Survey is also programmed to report water-use data from the database as total water use, water use by source category, and once-through cooling water use by business, site, country and region.

Quality Assurance

GE is continuing to work toward increasing the accuracy of its water-use inventory. It has modified its Eco Inventory Survey database to simplify it and to eliminate issues that have tended to introduce errors in the past. In addition, GE has developed numerous guidance documents and an internal guidance Web site and has provided extensive training on the inventory and on the use of the Eco Inventory Survey. Finally, GE has performed extensive data quality reviews on the water-use inventory including side-by-side comparisons of water-use data to identify and understand the reasons for significant differences (changes in production, changes in processes, water-use-reduction projects, etc.). A number of data-quality issues were identified, analyzed and corrected, where necessary, through this process. We have taken the approach that, for specific circumstances, if a significant deviation in water use emerges in a given year, a third-party environmental engineering consulting firm will validate restated water-use values.

For metrics regarding water usage, view our Planet metrics.

Besides reducing our operational water footprint and manufacturing products that help provide clean water to meet society’s needs, GE products and services are designed to minimize water consumption while in use. From front-load clothes washers and natural gas turbines to water purification systems, we focus on building products and offering services that help our customers increase their water efficiency.

Product Water-Efficiency: Power Industry

Cogentrix’s 120MW power plant in Battleboro, N.C., partnered with GE to conserve an estimated 3 million gallons of water annually, or the equivalent of approximately 22% of its water usage—greatly reducing its dependence on municipal freshwater sources. GE’s patented technology, including GenGard chemistry, enables the plant to use recycled cooling-tower water for lime slakers and pug mills, eliminate blowdown discharged into the Tar River, decrease operational costs, and increase the efficiency of the cooling-tower system by chemically reducing scaling and fouling. These effective and positive results offer significant relief to Battleboro as the region recovers from a two-year drought that affected large areas of North Carolina. It was the state’s worst drought since record-keeping began, and prompted municipalities throughout the region to implement water-saving measures.

Water Treatment: Unconventional Natural Gas

Water scarcity and wastewater quality are critical issues in the extraction of unconventional natural gas, during which gas deposits are recovered by pumping 4–6 million gallons of water and chemicals down gas wells in a process known as hydrofracturing.  As the quantity of water needed exceeds what is available on-site, producers commonly truck millions of gallons of water to the site. After hydrofracturing, as the gas is being extracted, some of the water flows back and is referred to as “produced water.” This water is either trucked off-site for disposal or processed for reuse on-site. Either option creates significant costs, while the truck traffic and disposal of the water is a focal point of environmental groups and state environmental protection agencies.

To avoid water-related limitations and reduce the impacts of developing unconventional fuels, GE is currently working with others to develop more cost-effective processes to recover and reuse water from hydrofracturing operations. Our research and products are particularly focused on the economic feasibility of produced-water treatment, reducing chemical usage, and identifying opportunities to treat produced water for use in a variety of applications.

Water Treatment: Industrial Processes

Industrial wastewater treatment can be challenging, with plants often facing high concentrations of organics, solids and odors. Increasingly stringent discharge regulations, diminishing freshwater supplies and rising costs are compelling many plant managers and corporate process experts to examine on-site membrane technologies that can reduce costs for wastewater treatment and water supply. ZeeWeed membrane bioreactor (MBR) and tertiary filtration systems are proven to treat process wastewater to such a high standard that it can be reused within the plant or discharged safely back into the environment with no additional treatment. These advanced systems outperform conventional technology and provide a consistent supply of non-potable water that meets discharge and reuse regulations.

GE will continue to work with our customers and partners on efforts like these to identify opportunities to reduce impacts on the environment by increasing water efficiency, both in our own products and facilities and in customer operations.

Water and Energy

We are also taking steps to apply a comprehensive region-specific approach to water footprint as part of our life-cycle assessment efforts, which look at environmental impacts across the entire value chain for selected GE products and services. GE’s Ecoassessment Center of Excellence is collaborating with Quantis International on the development of a custom life-cycle water-energy tool that will supplement GE’s existing life-cycle assessment tools and capabilities. While we are leveraging the new tool within our advanced environmental analysis projects, it is ultimately aimed at enabling our product teams and their customers to understand environmental impacts associated with water and energy production or consumption for selected GE products in various geographic regions. These insights, combined with other customer decision metrics, should help GE and its customers identify and select the products and technologies that optimize value with minimal environmental impact for a given region.  The tool will be based on the latest life-cycle water impact assessment methodologies, and will be updated periodically as further advances in water assessment methodology are developed and vetted within the scientific community. 

Learn more about ecomagination products.

 

Sustainable Growth 2012

GE’s 2012 Sustainable Growth Summary highlights progress against commitments on our social, environmental and economic impacts—or, what we call People, Planet and Economy.

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