A wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) can be considered a system where dirty water enters and fresh water (by means of treatment processes) and other co-products such as sludge and biogas exit. Inside the system, typically, the following steps occur: preliminary treatment, primary treatment,
[...] Read more.
A wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) can be considered a system where dirty water enters and fresh water (by means of treatment processes) and other co-products such as sludge and biogas exit. Inside the system, typically, the following steps occur: preliminary treatment, primary treatment, secondary treatment, tertiary treatment, disinfection, and solids handling. The system transforms biomass into several energy and non-energy products, which fall into the definition of a biorefinery. This research compares three simulated WWTP in terms of their environmental greenhouse gas (GHG) emission release to the atmosphere: a generic one (without co-product valorization), one that converts co-products into fertilizer, heat, and electricity, and a third one that converts co-products into heat, electricity, fertilizer, and bioplastic. Heat and electricity are used to provide its energy needs. The chosen impact category is GHG, and the aim is to project the best scenario to the European context in terms of GHG avoidance (savings). The scope is the upstream electricity and natural gas production, the in-use emissions, and the avoided emissions by substituting equivalent fossil-based products. The functional unit is 1 L of sewage (“dirty water”). The GHG savings are evaluated by comparing a generic WWTP scenario, without co-product valorization, with alternative scenarios of co-product valorization. Conventional LCA assuming all the emissions occurs at instant zero is compared to a more realistic environment where for each year, the average of the variable emission pulses occurs. Variable emissions pulses are taken from variable inflows data publicly available from European COST actions (COST Action 682 “Integrated Wastewater Management” as well as within the first IAWQ (later IWA) Task Group on respirometry-based control of the activated sludge process), within the later COST Action 624 on “Optimal Management of Wastewater Systems”). The GHG uncertainty is estimated based on the inputs benchmark data from the WWTP literature and by having different available global warming potential dynamic models. The conventional LCA versus dynamic LCA approach is discussed especially because a WWTP is by nature a dynamic system, having variable inputs along time and therefore variable output GHG emission pulses. It is concluded that heat needs are fully covered by biogas production in the anaerobic digester and combustion, covering its own energy needs and with a potential for heat district supply. Only 30–40% of electricity needs are covered by combined heat and power. Bioplastics and/or fertilizer yields potentially represent less than 3% of current European needs, which suggests the need to reduce their consumption levels. In comparison to generic WWTP, GHG savings are 20%, considering the uncertainty in the benchmark input assumptions. The former is much higher than the uncertainty in the dynamic global warming potential model selection, which means that the model selection is not important in this case study.