Transforming Water Reuse with GE Water & Process Technologies’ Thomas Stanley

August 7, 2015

 
John Shegerian: Welcome to another edition of Green Is Good. This happens to be the Wharton IGEL-GE water technology edition of Green Is Good. We are here in beautiful downtown San Francisco today, and we are so honored and lucky to have with us today Thomas Stanley. He is the Chief Technology Officer of GE Water. Welcome to Green Is Good, Tom. Thomas Stanley: John, thank you very much. It’s good to be here. John Shegerian: Well, Tom, today is a very important day here in downtown San Francisco. We’re going to be talking about water and technology. Who better than you to lead off our show talking about water and technology? First of all, how did you become the Chief Technology Officer, Tom? What was the journey leading up to that position? Was this something you always dreamed about as a kid? Was sustainability big in your household or was this something that was learned along the way and really interested you? Thomas Stanley: You know, it’s a fascinating story actually. I’m a 30-year career GE person, scientist, engineer. I’ve always been in R&D, but most of my career was either with our corporate research organization or with our materials business – plastics and silicones. Then, I remember, I was with plastics in 2001 when GE made the first acquisition that ultimately became GE Water and Process Technologies. I remember thinking, “If that job ever opens up that would be a great opportunity, what a great space and what an opportunity to do something really constructive and useful and important for the world society.” So move forward a few years: GE sold the plastics division, and I went with it, and a couple years later I said, “You know, I would love for an opportunity to get back to GE,” and a water CTO role opened up and here I am. So it was a bit of a dream come true. John Shegerian: Wow. That is awesome. And how many years ago was that? Thomas Stanley: That was just about four years ago. John Shegerian: Four years ago. And where is your office out of? Thomas Stanley: We are in Trevose, Pennsylvania, which is in between Philadelphia and Allentown. John Shegerian: Interesting. And for our listeners out there, and our viewers, to learn more about what Tom does at GE – at the iconic and amazing brand GE – you can learn more about everything about GE and water at www.GEwater.com. Tom, your office is in Pennsylvania. Today we are in California. There has been probably no greater time than right now to be talking about water and technology. We’re a couple miles from Silicon Valley. We’re here in California, where it is one of the driest states in the nation probably. Talk a little bit about the importance of today and what you’re going to be sharing with the audience in a little while. Thomas Stanley: Well, John, a big focus of the discussion or the course of the day is about water reuse. Taking water that comes from a wastewater treatment plant and instead of discharging it – and especially discharging it into the ocean where it becomes seawater – we ought to be able to use that. The technology is available today to be able to take that water and with relatively modest costs to be able to upgrade it as it necessary and to use it again. So it’s a great opportunity for us to extend and use more effectively the water resources that are available to us. John Shegerian: When you say “reuse,” can another term be called even “recycling” of water? Thomas Stanley: Yeah, I think those two terms are used fairly interchangeably. John Shegerian: Are we behind the times in the United States in deploying technology that already exists that companies like yours – GE – has already invented and also manages and installs compared to other countries around the world? Thomas Stanley: Our team is distributed around the world, so I have an opportunity to travel quite extensively. We have a lab in Singapore. We have a lab in China and in India. And I think Singapore is sort of a shining star in terms of having a very coordinated water policy and very effectively using the water resources that are available to them. So it’s interesting to see both the government municipal interactions there and the focus on water as well as the population and their awareness of water and focus on being very efficient in their use of water. John Shegerian: Are you saying that’s a paradigm that if we followed here in California and across the United States, we could potentially solve our water crisis and our drought issues? Thomas Stanley: I think so. We have to. John Shegerian: Right. Thomas Stanley: We have to. And there is not one answer. Recycling water from wastewater plants is one knob to improve our water balance and make sure that we have all the water we need. There are infrastructure improvements. People have to be more effective in using water. One thing I noticed recently when I was visiting relatives in California is this shift from irrigated lawns – watered lawns – to going to more natural stone and succulents and things like that. That’s another opportunity for us to use less water. So I think all of these things are going to come together and build a future that is more water resilient. John Shegerian: So when you say “reuse and recycling of water,” does that include greywater and also blackwater? Thomas Stanley: Sure. It’s possible to do all of those things or both of those things. John Shegerian: Is it a political issue more getting people politically motivated? Is it an economic issue? Or is it a social issue in terms of getting people over the mindset that one day they could be reusing grey or blackwater, and it’s absolutely acceptable because the technology is good enough that when you recycle that water, when you reuse that water, it’s absolutely beautiful and clean? Thomas Stanley: I think the emotional hurdle is with blackwater and this idea of toilet-to-tap that people struggle with. John Shegerian: Yeah. Thomas Stanley: The reality is we do that today. Upstream a municipality withdraws water, they treat it for drinking water, the discharge their ethanol from the wastewater treatment plant and then downstream the next municipality takes that water in. John Shegerian: Really? Thomas Stanley: So, I mean, the reality is it happens today. We just don’t do it directly. I think the emotional hurdle is if we do that on purpose can people get used to doing that? Now, we talked a little bit about Singapore before. John Shegerian: Yeah. Thomas Stanley: Singapore has a initiative they call “New Water,” where they take the wastewater treatment plant – the wastewater effluent – they upgrade the quality and make it absolutely pristine, and when you go to Singapore and you visit the wastewater treatment plant, you get a bottle called “New Water” and it’s right out of that recycle process and you can give it a taste. John Shegerian: Wow. So they really help market it and help people understand it by doing that, by making that connection. Thomas Stanley: Yes. Exactly. John Shegerian: That’s so interesting. Let’s talk a little bit about GE. What we love to talk about on this show are solutions and hope. GE has technologies that if appropriately deployed by our municipalities and our government structures across the United States – both private and public partnerships coming together with GE – we can solve our water issues here in this country. Thomas Stanley: Yeah. No question about it. No question about it. John Shegerian: What a hopeful message. I want to share a little funny anecdote. About six months ago – before this issue reached the proportions in terms of the media height that it is right now – I was flipping channels late at night and Jimmy Fallon came on and Bill Gates happened to be on. It was the edition where he brought on different bottles of water – one labeled “poop water.” Thomas Stanley: That would be Jimmy Fallon, eh? John Shegerian: Right. And one labeled “regular water.” And Bill Gates was trying to see if he could get Jimmy Fallon to drink the poop water from his technology that he was trying to bring to Africa. Similar to the technology that GE has I assume. It was a very funny episode, obviously, because he eventually tricked Jimmy Fallon into drinking something that he never thought he would drink. But is that kind of messaging and someone who is considered such an industry titan like Bill Gates – and also a philanthropist and thought leader – is that good for the movement of water? Him out on Jimmy Fallon talking about poop water? And is this really our future as we get more used to this idea water, recycling and reuse will become the norm and we won’t – 20 year from now, 10 years from now, hopefully – be living in such drought-stricken times? Thomas Stanley: Maybe I wouldn’t use the term “poop water,” but I think to have Bill Gates and people like Bill Gates out there talking about this issue, creating visibility, showing that there are options available, I think it’s great and I think it’s very, very helpful. But I should say also that the connection of taking blackwater, treating it and going directly to potable water – there are a lot of things that we can do in the interim before that. But recycle is not exclusively taking the wastewater effluent and going to drinking water, but there are a number of other applications. It can be used for irrigation for example. John Shegerian: Ah. Thomas Stanley: It’s used very, very frequently for irrigation, and with a relatively modest amount of treatment, wastewater treatment effluent can be used for those sorts of applications. Or industrial applications. Lots of times industrial facilities will use recycled municipal wastewater to use as the makeup for their cooling towers and other industrial applications. So there is a host of applications that one can use with recycled water – all of which help with the net consumption of fresh water. John Shegerian: Besides Singapore, here in the United States, which area in the United States is deploying GE technology to help solve the water crisis the best right now in terms of holding them up as a great example? Thomas Stanley: I think probably California simply because of the recent pressures in this area. But the statistics – as my policy friends tell me – is that in the United States we recycle today something like 3 to 4 percent of our water, so it’s a relatively modest amount. In California it’s maybe 6, 7, 8 percent. So it’s more, but there is still a tremendous opportunity for us to do more. John Shegerian: How big is the opportunity? What is your goal at GE? When you say, “Wow, we’re getting it done, we’re getting the vision executed,” how much of our water should we be reusing and recycling? Thomas Stanley: Well, in an arid region, where there is a need to do that, I think it’s not unreasonable to think about 80-plus percent. John Shegerian: Really? Thomas Stanley: Yeah. And then Israel is 85 percent recycled, and I think Singapore – as we’ve talked about before – they’re in that same neighborhood. So it’s certainly not unreasonable to think about a very high percentage of wastewater treatment plant output. John Shegerian: So with more messaging by great leaders like you and more technology being deployed now, there is a lot of hope in the future against the drought and the issue of the shortages of water here in the United States and around the world. Thomas Stanley: Yep. Absolutely. And again, the recycle is one component. Infrastructure improvements, behaviors in terms of how much water we use, all those things need to come together. But I am very positive. John Shegerian: Because you have such great visibility on this issue and have so many interesting relationships around the United States and around the world are governments open to this – what you are talking about now? Are municipalities and government infrastructure open to what you’re talking about in terms of solving this crisis and important issue? Thomas Stanley: I think more and more. In fact, I’ve had conversations with some of the folks who are attending our meeting today, and that is the message that you hear is that the need is so tremendous that in the past where there might have been a misalignment of priorities or measurements between different constituencies that need to cooperate to put a recycle project in place increasingly those interests are aligned, so it’s becoming easier for the in some cases fragmented agencies that have to participate in a recycle project – it’s getting much easier to do that, which is great. John Shegerian: That’s great. I’ll leave any final words for you for our audience before we have to say goodbye, but I would you to share any final thoughts on this critical topic of water and technology. Thomas Stanley: John, I really appreciate the opportunity to speak with you and speak with your audience. I think this is a very important topic. It’s a critical topic in California, so it’s very timely that our meeting is here. But I think increasingly it’s going to be a topic of importance across our country, and I think it’s important for people to pay attention to and participate in helping us all work together to make sure that we have all the water we need in the future. John Shegerian: Well, thank you, Tom. Thank you for your time today. And for our viewers and listeners out there, again, to learn more about Tom’s great work as a Chief Technology Officer of GE Water, please go to www.GEwater.com. This is the Wharton IGEL-GE Green Is Good special edition here in California, talking about water and technology and all the solutions. And GE has the solutions. There is lots of hope out there. Thank you for being with us today. Until our next episode. I’m John Shegerian with Tom Stanley, and we’ll see you soon.