In the United States there is much hue and cry from political animals complaining that the government is picking cleantech winners – if their preferred business is not the beneficiary of a subsidy.
But in Ontario, a government initiative introduced in November 2010, the Water Opportunities and Water Conservation Act, is striving to create partnerships among government, businesses, universities, and nonprofit organizations to help advance water-related technologies.
Ontario is already one of the top regions globally for producing innovative water technology, said venture capitalist David Henderson, managing director of XPV Capital in Toronto, thanks to the Great Lakes historically attracting water-intensive industries.
According to XPV, in a market that’s valued at US $360 billion and growing, Ontario firms are recognized for their expertise in ultraviolet disinfection, membrane technology filtration, compact sewage treatment, water information and systems software, water conservation, and plant design and operation and plant optimization technologies.
But now, thanks to the new law, the sector hopes to see yet more innovation and economic growth, including a regional job boom, thanks to $60 million in investments and the opportunity for companies to develop, test, and demonstrate their research in the real world on local municipal water and sewage infrastructure.
The water industry has traditionally been conservative because its No. 1 goal is to avoid sickening people, so it can be difficult for a company to convince a municipality to risk testing a new approach. Also, government regulation in many areas has capped return on investment, limiting profit potential. The new law aims to address these barriers head on.
When I was in Toronto earlier this month, I spoke with Brenda Lucas, director of the Southern Ontario Water Consortium (SOWC), a new project funded by the federal and provincial governments but not directly connected with the legislation. For the next two years, Lucas has her work cut out for her, as she gets SOWC up and running. She expects the consortium to be fully operational by March 2014.
The project is “about aligning public policy goals with economic development opportunities,” said Lucas. “It allows academic and corporate researchers to work together to find new solutions to real world situations. It provides a demonstration capacity for research and technology development that’s been lacking in Ontario. And puts it together in this watershed context, looking at the whole watershed, which is really a unique feature of it.”
Watershed-level management is becoming a buzzword globally as water managers realize their machinations have widespread effects. SOWC will focus primarily on the 2,600-square-mile (6,800-square-kilometer), urbanizing Grand River watershed, home to nearly 1 million people. But it also looks at three sub-watersheds, said Lucas, one that is relatively pristine, one rapidly urbanizing, and one already very urban.
“The problems we’re facing with water management are complex and changing,” she said. “And one of the benefits of looking at the Grand River watershed in particular is that we can address an urbanizing watershed, which is really the context for water management in Canada and is certainly applicable elsewhere as well.”
She continued: “Not all the drivers or impacts or influences will be the same. But it will be applicable to most other watersheds in North America, certainly.” Also, “just the idea of building this whole ecosystem for research in technology and innovation on a watershed framework will be a model that other countries will want to look at,” she said.
The consortium’s board of directors includes representatives from eight private sector companies; six participating universities; and the Toronto Region Research Alliance. Two other universities, more than 60 companies, and a number of municipalities throughout southern Ontario are also participating in SOWC.
Henderson called the law “pretty gutsy.” He said, “We have an abundance of water; we’re coming out of this recession crisis; and
SOWC will focus on advancing water-related technologies in key areas: drinking water, wastewater treatment, water reuse, run-off management, ecotoxicological analysis, watershed management, and sensor development for data collection.
Another unique hallmark of the consortium is to encourage researchers to investigate more than one of these areas at a time. For example, a company might investigate the impact of treated wastewater on the ecology of the watershed as well as on drinking water.
The law also requires municipalities to introduce water sustainability plans, in which they manage water, wastewater, and stormwater systems in an integrated way to find opportunities for conservation, efficiency, and innovation.
“It’s a way to shift municipalities toward being clients for innovation,” said Lucas. “There was a sense that it was hard for municipalities to think about bringing in new technologies, processes, and approaches because they were set in older engineering mindset.”
Part of the law’s overall strategy is to ensure that government policies allow partners to reach the shared goals of having cost-effective water solutions that still ensure safe drinking water. “There do seem to be some policy and regulatory barriers,” said Lucas.
One major element of the legislation was to create WaterTAP (Water Technologies Acceleration Project), of which David Henderson is a member. The body is advising government on strategy to ensure that SOWC implements things in a way that reduces barriers for business and creates the right opportunities for innovation.
“The Water Opportunities and Water Conservation Act isn’t just about economic development around the water sector; it’s about water conservation and sustainability,” said Henderson. “And I think for the first time we’re seeing the environment stakeholders, business, and government starting to interact in what I call an adult conversation around how we manage these issues. If we all stay in our respective corners, we won’t solve the problems.”