Rupert Posner is settling into a new berth at South East Water in Victoria as corporate affairs manager, following his departure from Good Environmental Choice Australia last year.
Mr Posner said the organisation was strongly focused on sustainability in its operations, and this month moved into a new 5 Star Green Star Design office overlooking Port Phillip Bay in Frankston.
The new office was “a bit like working in a cruise ship”, he said, with water views, high levels of natural light and a fitout that includes extensive amounts of FSC-certified timber.
The new space is also expected to result in operational savings for SEW of around $5 million a year through consolidating staff from two previous locations, an energy-efficient space, and no lease costs as the building is owned by the organisation.
It has added around 30 per cent to the commercial office space in Frankston, he said, and brought 600 jobs into the community, which has been welcomed by local businesses.
It is also part of a broader revival of the city, with the state government planning to revitalise the train station, and SEW also adding to the public realm on its land holdings with the development of retail space, cafes and restoration works for the neighbouring creek area.
The organisation will now be delivering better value to its owner, the Victorian government, and customers, Mr Posner said.
He said SEW was leading in terms of sustainability with the development of technologies for its operations.
“Climate change is a significant issue, both in terms of how do we reduce our impact as an organisation, and also what the impact of climate change will be on the business,” Mr Posner said.
“There is a lot of innovation happening.”
Progressive initiatives include a new pressure sewer system that will replace the existing septic tanks for up to 16,000 properties on the Mornington peninsula.
The septic tanks have been creating issues including sewage pollution into the permeable sandy soils of the peninsula, contaminating groundwater and runoff.
Mr Posner said the decision to install a pressurised system instead of the traditional gravity system has a major benefit in terms of reduced impact for installation, as the pipes are much smaller. This also makes it faster to install, and cheaper.
A traditional system would take decades and cost around $500 million, he said. The initial expectation was that the pressure system would cost $350 million over a decade, however a bulk purchase of pumps and a competitive tender process brought the cost down to $250 million.
As a result, SEW handed back checks of up to $5000 to the first 200 households that signed up to be connected under the initial pricing expectation.
Advantages for property owners of the new system include no future maintenance, unlike septic tanks, which require regular servicing, and also the freeing up of land equivalent to the size of a small home for other purposes.
Mr Posner said the space freed up by removing septic tanks was being used in a variety of ways, including the construction of a new driveway and extending homes. Other property owners have identified that it adds an uplift in value to their property.
The pumps for the system are monitored by SEW’s OneBox technology. This enables remote monitoring of the system, and can identify issues including leaks.
Mr Posner said a trial has been carried out over the winter period of solar power to drive the pumps. If the results prove to be successful, this will be rolled out more broadly to reduce the system’s carbon footprint.
The organisation is also looking at the supply side of the water equation, and has developed a smart technology, TankTalk, that hooks up to a home’s rainwater tank and is linked to weather forecasts. It informs the owner when major rain events are due and will recommend partial draining before the downpour to minimise overflows and reduce overall pressures on the local stormwater system.
“Delivery of services doesn’t just have to be the pipe in, pipe out approach,” Mr Posner said.
SEW is also looking at how sewer waste is utilised. It has been collecting waste products at its treatment plants that are then passed along to other sectors for fertiliser. A solar dryer trial has been underway at the Mt Martha treatment plant. Mr Posner said these are “like a greenhouse” and are an alternative to open evaporation ponds that is faster and easier for reclaiming solid wastes post-treatment.
“The drivers for better use of waste will increase,” Mr Posner said.
SEW is also investigating water reuse and recycling, and already has some facilities that are treating water to a standard suitable for reuse, he said.
“The question then becomes, how do you utilise that water? For example, there’s the third pipe concept, which is part of the standards for Fishermans Bend,” Mr Posner said.
“We are very actively involved in those discussions.”
He said the growing population and the lessons of the drought were very much informing the organisation’s approach to meeting demand for water supplies and for treatment of waste water.
“We are looking at more creative and efficient ways of providing for those needs.”
Ultimately, he said, water is a cycle. It comes from the environment, gets used, and then goes back to the environment.
Making sure the loop is sustainable and environmentally benign is the challenge.
“The water bill [customers get] is not just about what’s coming into [their property]. It’s also about us taking away what goes down the drain.”