Investment Opportunities in Water: Produced Water – Part I

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The water industry is renowned for being risk averse and conservative. It’s understandable. No one wants people to experiment with their water.

But as fresh water becomes more and more precious and the cost of energy to get fresh water keeps on rising, the challenges of the water-energy nexus are getting bigger. The industry needs innovative solutions but with innovation comes risk. This blog series will put the spotlight on technologies addressing some of the challenges and take a closer look at their markets and growth prospects ahead of our next water conference.

The water industry and the energy industry are fundamental to one another. The water industry needs large amounts of energy to transport, store and treat water. The energy industry needs large amounts of water (for boilers and cooling) to generate and distribute power. Head upstream to the oil and gas industry and the problem is there too – the industry is producing increasing amounts of wastewater, and needing more and more energy to treat it.

This last area – the treatment of wastewater produced by the oil and gas industry (known as ‘produced water’) – is one we think has particularly strong growth prospects, especially at the high level end of the process. Using advanced desalination technologies, water can be treated to a standard whereby it’s no longer a waste product to be disposed of, but a resource which can be used again. But treating water to this level is expensive. It can only work if it’s cheaper than the alternative or if the water can be sold on at the right price. Technologies that can deliver the quality of water required while driving down energy costs are on the money.

This market looks set for strong growth for several reasons. Conventional oil and gas extraction – which refers to the resources we have typically produced using onshore and offshore vertical wells – has likely peaked in some regions, North America being one of them. Large quantities of water are present in oil reservoirs and are brought to the surface along with the oil during the extraction process. As an oil field matures, there is more water in the reservoir and less oil, which means even more water is brought to the surface as the water to oil ratio increases.

Alongside the growing maturity of conventional onshore oil fields, we’re also seeing sharp growth in ‘unconventional’ energy – shale gas and tight oil, oil sands and coal bed methane. Once too difficult and too expensive to exploit, widespread adoption of technological innovations such as hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) and horizontal drilling means these ‘new’ sources of energy are now very much commercially viable. They might be providing a real boost to supplies but they are using a lot more fresh water, and therefore generating a lot more wastewater, often in regions that are already water stressed. Shale projects use large quantities of water in the fracking fluid and oil sands also use huge amounts in processing.

This water from both conventional and unconventional processes isn’t lost, but it does become a highly varied, and growing, waste stream. On average, for every barrel of oil currently recovered, eight barrels of wastewater are also generated. That’s quite a statistic, and probably one not many people outside the sector are aware of. Over the next 15 years, this oil-to-water ratio is forecast to increase from 1:8 to 1:12 and the size of the market (in the US) is set to double to $10 billion. So it’s not hard to see that this is an industry which is becoming as much about water as it is about energy. On top of all that there’s the global issue of water scarcity. If all this produced water can be treated to a level where it can be reused – either within the industry, or sold to another, such as agriculture, that’s a big opportunity.

“The gas associated with CBM is one of the major players at the moment for future gas supply. There are a lot of these activities at the moment where you get a lot of water on the surface, which is on the one hand a waste but if you look at it could be used as a resource and that is a big opportunity.”

Joppe Cramwinckel, Shell

Part 2 of this blog will look at the technologies in more detail and some of the key players.

Article by Tom Whitehouse. Tom is the Chairman of the London Environmental Investment Forum (LEIF), a conference platform which connects environmental innovation with capital, and the Founder and CEO of LEIF’s Initiating Partner, Carbon International, a corporate finance and investor communications consultancy for environmental and cleantech industries.

Thanks to our partner and industry expert Global Water Intelligence for providing us with its excellent report on Produced Water. We will be holding our ‘Investing in Water’ conference in Q2 2012 which will explore this topic, among others, in more depth. The event will feature industry insight, presentations from tech innovators and panel discussions. If you’re interested in partnering with us for this event, please contact us. Find out more about LEIF at www.london-eif.com.

About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.

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