Case Studies

Building the Resource Recovery Operation of the Future in Queensland With Urban Utilities

How Queensland's Largest Utility Is Using Software, Data And True Collaboration To Push Its Resource Recovery Operation Into The 21st Century.

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"My job is to get the best environmental outcome with the least amount of resources, and the least amount of emissions."

Peter Donaghy, General Manager of Resource Recovery, Urban Utilities

At a Glance:

  • Decreased annual biosolids costs at Luggage Point facility by $500,000
  • Achieved a 50% reduction in energy costs and a 16% increase in renewable energy generation since 2018
  • Increased nitrogen removal efficiency to 93.3%
  • Increased end-product quality by preventing contamination at the source

Queensland Urban Utilities (QUU) manages and operates 27 treatment plants in Southeast Queensland, from some of the largest treatment plants in Australia down to small rural sites servicing just a handful of customers. As General Manager of the Resource Recovery division, Peter Donaghy’s role is to ensure that the system is delivering on its primary objective: protect the environment of Southeast Queensland from wastewater effluent. But while treating wastewater is often understood to be a fairly linear, engineering-driven process, Donaghy’s resource recovery mandate means that he’s constantly on the lookout for what he calls “recycling loops.”

These are parts of QUUs system that could yield value for the utility and its customers, like the non-potable water it recycles for its industrial customers to reduce pressure on the drinking water system. Finding and identifying more of these loops is the key to identifying future opportunities in resource recovery and wastewater management, says Donaghy. And for the last three years, Klir has worked with QUU to begin the process of capturing, tracking and shedding light on those new opportunities.

The Biosolids Breakthrough

Urban Utilities’ Luggage Point facility processes waste from about 800,000 people in the Brisbane region, including commercial trade waste. From this, three resources are extracted:

  • Recycled water
  • Energy from biogas
  • Biosolids: a treated, human waste-derived fertilizer product packed with nutrients

Started a decade ago, the biosolids program has been a massive success, not just for QUU and their customers, but also local farmers, who benefit from the thousands of tonnes of biosolids generated every year.“ Every tonne of nitrogen that we're able to return to the land safely is one less tonne that needs to be manufactured from urea, which is an incredibly energy intensive manufacturing process. We're talking about thousands of tonnes of CO2.”

QUU has continued to improve the effectiveness of its biosolids program. Over the last few years, they've decreased annual biosolids costs at Luggage Point by $500,000, achieved a 50% reduction in energy costs and a 16% increase in renewable energy generation since 2018. They've also become better at extracting Nitrogen (removal efficiency has increased to 93.3%) without increasing cost to customers and reducing environmental impact. How did they do it? For Donaghy, the utility’s progress has as much to do with engineering successes as it does with leveraging technologies like Klir to fundamentally redefine the way operators and management understand QUU’s wastewater system.

Defining the Resource Recovery Challenge

When QUU first approached Klir about building a real-time data management and tracking system in 2019, it was looking for a way to get more out of its biosolids program. The existing system was already delivering thousands of tonnes of high quality biosolids to farmers, but it was also highly reliant on individual expertise, sharing data & lab test results was difficult, and manual workflows meant that important compliance and operational tasks often fell through the cracks.

“My job is to get the best environmental outcome with the least amount of resources, and the least amount of emissions,” says Donaghy. To that end, Klir’s dashboard and biosolids tracking tool gave his team access to numerous key metrics that were fundamental to increasing the efficiency of QUU’s biosolids process, including:

  • Product quality trends over time, to help identify which processes were working and which ones needed improvement
  • Important financial metrics like annual budget vs. costs & tonnage removal
  • Pass/fail rates of sampling results and alerts when contaminant limit is approached or exceeded to help quickly identify and remedy quality problems at the source

And as important as the granular metrics were, Donaghy says that mapping out and tracking the biosolids process in this way began to uncover truths about the system he and his team had never been aware of. “One of the problems we have is that wastewater treatment is often treated very much as an engineering field. We design plants, we build them, we put all the instruments in that confirm the design, and that’s that.”

Donaghy says that at some point, his team recognized that to truly drive meaningful change and efficiency through the system, they would need to find and begin working from a whole different set of data. And to get that, they needed more connectivity between people and data and systems and processes“ We began to ask: how does this biosolid system work? It wasn’t until we started exploring the connections that we really started to make progress." That process—driven in large part by projects like the Klir dashboard—has put QUU on the path not just to improve its biosolids program, but to also pursue more ambitious resource recovery projects as a whole moving forward.

Discovering And Leveraging New Connections

Donaghy says one particularly exciting discovery his team made regarding biosolids had to do with the way effluent moved through the system’s pumping stations.

“Very early on we recognized that biosolids quality was influenced by trade and industrial waste streams and our source control function (the people who manage and oversee trade waste licenses). What I didn’t realize initially was that the teams that operate and control the sewer network also have a big role to play in the biosolids system.”

As his team began to unpack the biosolids system, Donaghy realized that operators needed to respond to variations in effluent quality quickly to more effectively control final biosolids product quality.“ We worked out that as soon as we saw something coming in at the head of a treatment plant, there may be identifiable catchment pump stations we could inhibit that could slow that process and give us time to react.” By inhibiting a pump station and allowing that pump station to slowly fill up, Donaghy’s team realized they could buy themselves an hour or two to send a worker to that pump station to test it for effluent.

Pumping stations, as it turns out, can play an important role as a critical control in the management of biosolids. “Inhibiting a pump station is not something you'd intuitively think is part of managing biosolids, it's way off in the network. This new insight is a potential game changer for Donaghy and his colleagues and will be enabled by a system view supported by real time data.

Building Towards The Future

Since QUU first approached Klir in 2019, the utility’s biosolids program has already shown remarkable progress, decreasing operating costs, increasing biosolids quality and increasing the QUU team’s understanding of the biosolids system as a whole. Those efforts have been so successful that the ramifications extend far beyond the product local farmers are receiving.

As Donaghy and his team continue to scour the utility’s system for more recycling loops, that formula for success is becoming a template for how other resource recovery programs at the utility can set ambitious new goals for the future. “The next phase is going to be to bring that to all the other areas of resource recovery, which includes things like energy generation, recycled water, and the wastewater treatment process itself.”

Armed with a new set of data and tools and a richer understanding of QUU’s system, Donaghy and his team are building a model: not just for the future of biosolids, but for the future of effective and efficient resource recovery in general.

Get More out of Your Biosolids by Getting More out of Your Data  

Klir brings all of your utility’s mission-critical data together in real time and helps you run better, faster and more efficient resource recovery programs. Book a call with our team to get more out of your biosolids today.

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