Toilet power

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Sturgeon County could soon be home to a revolutionary wastewater treatment centre that could let future homeowners get all their heat and most of their water from their toilets.

Landowner Ken Pacholok and University of Alberta professor Nicholas Ashbolt spoke to county council Tuesday about their proposed Sturgeon Water Centre & Demonstration Community.

Ashbolt is the Alberta Innovates Health Solutions translational health chair in disease prevention and an expert in water treatment systems.

Ashbolt and Pacholok proposed to build a pilot wastewater treatment centre on a 280-hectare site just northeast of St. Albert that would demonstrate how neighbourhoods could turn their wastewater into useable heat, fertilizer, and water.

“We’ve been looking at doing something special with these lands for some time,” Pacholok said in an interview. He and neighbour Jim Hole (co-owner of the Enjoy Centre) wanted to do something to enhance research at the U of A’s experimental farm just to the north and make use of the site’s location next to the Sturgeon River.

Pacholok said he and Hole met Ashbolt through the U of A’s Water Institute. Ashbolt told them the province was looking for iconic projects that would demonstrate integrated approaches to water management.

“Water is, at its essence, the most important resource that we have,” he said, yet Alberta relies on water systems that are costly and energy-intensive.

Canada has about $172 billion in repairs it needs to do to bring its water systems up to snuff, Ashbolt told council. Those systems are massively overbuilt, as we use drinking water for everything – even firefighting – where water treated to a lower standard would do. We also devote up to 60 per cent of our municipal electricity use to aerating and pumping sewage.

“Is that a sensible thing to do? There are other alternatives.”

Ashbolt explained that the feces and food in our sewage are resources we can tap.

Using an anaerobic digester, communities can take the organic material in sewage and turn it into methane, which can be used to make heat or electricity. Nutrients in the sewage can be precipitated out to create fertilizer – Edmonton’s Gold Bar treatment plant already does this. After a bit of treatment, the remaining water can be reused for non-drinking, non-household purposes (e.g. irrigation) or sent to the Sturgeon River to enhance its natural flows.

The city of Sneek in the Netherlands has had such a system for about eight years, Ashbolt said in an interview. It now gets all its heat and hot water from methane produced by its sewage, and makes money from the resulting energy savings.

Pacholok pitched this facility as the centrepiece of a future community that would supply its wastewater. (Wastewater would initially be either trucked in or diverted from a local sewer line.)

“Instead of hiding the wastewater and water treatment, you bring it to the forefront, you make it pretty,” he told council, enhancing water awareness and conservation.

The centre – the first of its kind in Alberta – would become a gathering place with a discovery centre for kids and a training centre for water engineers, one that could demonstrate new water treatment technologies, Pacholok said.

Ashbolt and Pacholok said in an interview that the centre would reduce a community’s potable water needs by about 30 per cent initially, and could eventually reduce it by 80 per cent. It would also help the province develop the regulations needed to make it easier for homeowners to use greywater (runoff and drain-water) systems (which are currently approved on a case-by-case basis).

Ashbolt said he had applied for a provincial grant to build the project. If it gets funded, its first phase could be up and running by 2018.

Coun. Patrick Tighe said he was so impressed by this idea that he was willing to host part of the project on his own property.

“This is such an issue worldwide that it needs to be addressed almost yesterday.”

Council will consider whether or not to write a letter in support of Ashbolt’s grant application later this April.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.