May 5, 2011

All Watered Up: In PA, Water is Becoming Big Business




Water is a supremely vital resource, but its seemingly ever-present nature gives us a tendency to take it for granted, erroneously assuming it exists in some bottomless well. The finite supply of clean water is an increasing focus in Pennsylvania, where cities like Pittsburgh and York have embraced water treatment as an important economic and environmental strategy, and companies, sometimes operating within the framework of headline-generating gas-drilling initiatives, are finding new, entrepreneurial ways to treat water.

A prime example is Hydro Recovery, a Blossburg company launched last October that is building a manufacturing plant in Tioga County, a key area in the Marcellus Shale Region, where it plans to convert the water used in the exploration for natural gas known as “frac water” to a Hydraulic Stimulation Fluid. The HSF can then be used to extract more natural gas. The process is designed to eliminate the need to transport wastewater over long distances and, because of the recycling of the water, reduce the environmental impact of has drilling. In March, the Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania awarded Hydro Recovery a $250,000 grant to help offset some of the construction costs for the $11.5 million project.

Hydro Recovery Business Development Manager Teresa Copenhaver says the plant is tentatively set to open in May, creating between 12 and 15 jobs as well as "numerous jobs in the construction and engineering businesses" involved in the project. The company is currently planning sites in Lawrence Twp. in Clearfield County and Towanda in Bradford County, as well as listing "potential sites under construction" in Endicott, N.Y., and six other Pennsylvania locations on its website.
"I would say it’s still developing and changing, as far as the industry itself. We are near the beginning, but it is changing," Copenhaver says, noting that only two years ago natural gas drillers were not yet reusing water.

Copenhaver explains a major reason for the shift in approach is that tests conducted on the viability of reusing water showed gas-drilling companies "they don't have to necessarily have fresh water in order to frac the well."

Meanwhile, Comtech Industries in Washington County has been specializing in mobile water treatment for Marcellus Shale fracturing. According to a recent article in theObserver Reporter, the company began providing water processing at gas wells in West Virginia about six years ago. 

The Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Developmenthas supported a few other innovative water-related undertakings in the state, both in the municipal and corporate sectors. The York City Sewer Authority, which serves more than 17,000 residents in eight York County townships, is replacing a 20-year-old co-generation system with a more efficient micro-turbine engine at York City Waste Water Treatment. The new system will provide 2.5 million kilowatt-hours of electricity from the methane produced as a naturally occurring byproduct during the wastewater treatment process. According to the DCED, the project will result in a savings of about $277,775 per year. The project earned a $1.5 million Alternative and Clean Energy loan from the DCED this year.

In Northumberland County, Furman Foods plans to expand its waste water treatment plant to continue operating in compliance with the Chesapeake Bay Tributary Strategy as well as utilize an anaerobic digester to generate methane gas that will be harnessed as a source of renewable energy, generating electricity for the waste water treatment plant. According to the DCED, it is estimated that Furman Foods will save $215,000 in electrical costs per year once the digester is installed. Furman Foods received a $1.75 million Alternate and Clean Energy grant from the DCED in 2010.

Penn Future is a nonprofit advocacy organization also known as Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future that promotes environmentally conscious policies. 

"There’s always been great interest and great focus on water issues in Pennsylvania," says Penn Future President and CEO Jan Jarrett. "In the lower 48, we have more streams than any other state; the only other state with more, I believe, is Alaska. So it’s always an important issue."

That could mean an even bigger impact on the state's economy. In Philadelphia,Medilinger Partners is the country's only investment firm devoted solely to water investment and is on its way to raising $75 million in a private equity fund by the end of the year.

"Water has always been a crucial aspect of Pennsylvania’s economy," says DCED press secretary Steven Kratz.  "Our interlocking waterways and our three major ports have made Pennsylvania a prime location for importing and exporting.
"With the development of new technologies, water is now being used as a clean and cost-effective source of energy for business owners, resulting in substantial cost-savings."

Michael Lello is a freelance writer, editor and former longtime newspaper professional based in Scranton. He operates a music news blog called Highway 81 Revisited.


1-2 - Photographs showing progress to Hydro Recovery's Blossburg site (courtesy of Hyrdo Recovery)

3-4 - View of Comtech Industries' active operations (courtesy of Comtech)

5 - Furmano Foods (courtesy of Furmano Foods)