A few months ago, I was seconded from Ulster University by my supervisors Prof. Neil Hewitt and Dr. Caterina Brandoni to the Council of Water, Agriculture and Environment, Water Division of the Region of Murcia in Spain. My role during the secondment was to collect information about the challenges and summarise on the best practices of water reuse in Murcia. This was an excellent opportunity as the Region of Murcia is a leader in this field as I learned from meeting with Pedro Simon of ESAMUR - they actually reuse 95% of water! I visited ESAMUR and got access to their most up to date printed literature (it was printed in Spanish, but I was able to understand the relevant text relating to the data and diagrams) and Pedro explained about energy use in the different processes of water treatment, the current and potential opportunities for renewable technologies and the challenges and improvements they were making to the waste water treatment plants across the region. I also had access to the library of water and to find out about the various projects happening there. I learned about the policy background which lead to the current layout of the water treatment plants in Murcia.
All of the partners in Spain were very welcoming and kind, they took time to explain the background and history of waste water treatment in the region so that I could better understand how they had got the where they are today. Manuel Boluda explained to me how from 1991 on the policies developed from the Royal Directive and the plants were built based upon population and also development happened at a time when industry was growing so this factor influenced sizing. Many changes took place between 1996 and 2011 and therefore a lot of the Waste water treatment plants in the small regions where industry was have now closed are therefore operating less efficiently, using a lot of energy and costing a lot to run. Various bodies are responsible for different areas of the same river and below this the management and payment systems are different. Other challenges they were facing with regard to energy included the Sun Tax applied to solar technologies to be more competitive with HEP, but despite these challenges, the region have some very innovative projects such a solar panels on floating platforms over reservoirs to reduce evaporation and the Albedo effect of the sun and generate energy. Jesus took us to on a trip to visit an irrigation project near Lorca and we could then get a feel for some of the challenges in perfecting this technology, unforeseen issues like panel tilt during low water and operation and maintenance considerations for example if one panel in the middle of the reservoir malfunctions. They were very open about any problems they experienced and those which still need to be addressed and were happy for us to ask questions and share our knowledge in the field of energy.
I also got to learn more about the work of the other ALICE project partners, indeed another early stage researcher from the University of Macerata, Lorenzo Compagnucci was seconded to the Region during my time there to work on increasing collaboration between industry, government and academia in the field of innovation. This provided an extra viewpoint for comparison of the water/energy industry in Italy as well. I also got to attend the ALICE workshop last June and meet lots of the other partners in person, to network and learn more about the valuable work they are all doing and provide opportunities for further collaboration on the ALICE project.
This insight into looking at energy in a reuse context was a really useful experience and being able to visit the treatment plants and see first-hand projects such as the solar irrigation project gave me a new perspective on the energy intensive water treatment processing challenges we face here in Northern Ireland. It also inspired me to consider that we could do more to make the most of the resources we have and innovate further to harness the full potential of renewable technologies in Northern Ireland.