The global water crisis is enormous. Today there are over one billion people without clean water and the number is soaring as water shortages spread globally, including to developed nations like the United States.
If you are reading this article, you are fortunate that you are probably relatively insulated and unaware of the magnitude of this problem and most likely have not experienced the harsh reality of living without adequate clean water.
Insatiable global demand for potable water is fueling big sales and high growth in the $360 billion water treatment industry. There are a large number of water treatment companies selling a large number of different water treatment technologies, yet our global population is still facing the most serious water shortage in history; and the quality of water even in developed nations is declining and posing serious health hazards.
A few leaders in water treatment are General Electric (NYSE:GE), Veolia (NYSE:VE), Dow Chemical (NYSE:DOW) and American Water Works (NYSE:AWK). A few examples of commonly used water treatment technologies are: Advanced Oxidation Process, Reverse Osmosis, Membrane Filtration, Ceramic Filtration, Ultrafiltration, Carbon Filtration and more.
If these technologies are being sold for billions of dollars they must work. If they work, why is there still such an enormous problem?
The answer is very simple and can be explained with just one word - "Cost"!
These technologies all work, but they simply cost too much. Demand for clean water may be "off the charts", but supply is unable to keep up because significant investment capital is required, and operational costs are high. An example of the high cost just for capital investment comes from the small community of Oceanside, California, where they are exploring replacement of an older water treatment facility that was built in 1949. Replacement today is estimated at close to $100 million. And that does not include the high cost of energy for operation and maintenance.
One example of the high cost of energy for operating water treatment is quoted from the American Council For An Energy Efficient Economy, "municipal water supply and wastewater treatment systems are among the most energy-intensive facilities owned and are operated by local governments, accounting for about 35% of energy used by municipalities."
It's logical that a more cost-effective solution is required to have any meaningful impact on the water crisis. Because they are the only options for solutions, current high-cost technologies will remain in big demand and will generate large sales, but they will not solve the lion's share of the problem. The fact that the magnitude of the unsolved problem is still so enormous; and that so many technologies are offered by so many companies; is a strong statement that they cannot solve the global water crisis.
The Global Water Picture Today
Eighty percent of infectious diseases are caused by contaminated water. Five million people die each year from lack of water or from contaminated water. One quarter of the world population has little or no clean water. By 2020, it is estimated that 76 million people will die from lack of water or from contaminated water.
China has 22% of the world's population, but only 7% of the world's fresh water.
Similar problems exist in Africa, India and the Middle East. Droughts combined with water pollution from agriculture, oil recovery, mining and industry are straining available fresh water in the United States, Europe and other developed nations and are constraining economic and social development worldwide.
Global Pollution Sources
Agriculture is the largest user of water swallowing up 70% of all available fresh water. Runoff water from agriculture is massive on a global scale and is known to pollute the groundwater, rivers and lakes with nitrates and pesticides. An example of what nitrates can do is the recent drinking water scare in Toledo, Ohio when it was discovered that nitrates were leaking into Lake Erie and causing toxic algae blooms to grow and contaminate the drinking water supply. Nitrate problems are expected to become widespread and more apparent as monitoring devices to measure for contaminants become more effective and in wider use.
The U.S Geological Survey Water School claims, "Before the mid-1970s, it was thought that soil acted as a protective filter that stopped pesticides from reaching groundwater. Studies have now shown that this is not the case. Pesticides can reach water-bearing aquifers below ground from applications onto crop fields, seepage of contaminated surface water, accidental spills and leaks, improper disposal, and even through injection waste material into wells."
Oil sands production creates the majority of oil but requires about four gallons of water to extract each gallon of oil from the sand. The wastewater, "produced water", from oil sands recovery becomes contaminated with toxins and is often stored in tailings ponds until a solution can be found to treat the water to safe standards. In Canada, there are over 170 square kilometers of "tailings ponds" containing about one billion gallons of wastewater. There have been reports of significant leakage from these tailings ponds back into the water supply raising concerns about safety. The large water requirements and produced wastewater are becoming serious constraints on oil sands production.
Fracking requires an average of 4.5 million gallons of water per well and there are several hundred thousand wells. The wastewater from fracking called "flowback", is toxic and is often injected back into deep disposal wells that are below the ground water table. According to an article in Scientific American, "Records from disparate corners of the United States show that wells drilled to bury this waste deep beneath the ground have repeatedly leaked, sending dangerous chemicals and waste gurgling to the surface or, on occasion, seeping into shallow aquifers that store a significant portion of the nation's drinking water." The difficulty obtaining the necessary water requirements and safely managing the toxic flowback wastewater are becoming serious constraints on fracking.
Mining operations require large amounts of water for recovering targeted minerals from ore and the wastewater tailings are also very toxic. Typically, these wastewater tailings are placed into tailings ponds where they remain for years with the potential to leak into the groundwater and rivers. Massive toxic spills into the water supply were recently reported in Canada, Mexico, and West Virginia.
Electric power plants are one of the largest users of water, and depending on the nation, coal-fired power plants contribute anywhere from 41% to 93% of electricity worldwide.
Coal fired power plants have been under scrutiny for decades due to the heavy carbon emissions they release into the atmosphere. They are required to use air scrubbers to clean the air, but the water used to clean the scrubbers picks up the toxic contaminants and carries them to the water supply.
According to the NY Times, Coal fired power plants are the biggest producers of toxic waste. Every year, they release millions of pounds of pollutants, including toxic metals like arsenic, boron, mercury, cadmium, lead and selenium, into rivers, streams, and lakes.
Current Water Treatment Technologies In Use
GE offers a number of water treatment methods that produce 1.7 billion gallons of potable water every day. ZEEWEED ultrafiltration membrane technology for oil refineries allows them to reuse up to 95% of their water from recycling. GE's membrane water treatment recycles 100 million gallons of wastewater every day for agricultural irrigation. GE's "EDR" technology turns raw water into drinking water for metropolitan water systems. This video clip by GE explains their role in water treatment.
Referring to the high cost of operating any water treatment technology, Yuvbir Singh, General Manager engineered systems at GE Water and Process Technology, said, "Over the last couple of years we've been really focused on reducing energy consumption in out wastewater treatment systems, because on a lifecycle basis, that's a big part of operating cost for our customers." In spite of high investment and operating costs, demand for GE water treatment products is expected to remain very strong because the need is so great.
GE is a giant conglomerate with diverse interests across a broad spectrum of the economy and the water division is not expected to significantly impact the company's overall, revenues, profits and valuation.
Veolia is a world leader in delivering drinking water solutions to municipalities. Veolia uses basically the same technologies as their competitors to treat water with their Berkal, Actiflo, Multiflo, Spidflow, Filtraflo and membrane technologies. Veolia's Opaline membrane filters are used to remove pesticides, total organic carbon, endocrine disrupters, and micro-organisms. Veolia's water treatment technologies serve over 150 million people with technologies that are similar to the competition, therefore, capital and operating costs are running high. In spite of the high costs of their products, demand for Veolia water treatment is expected to remain very strong because the need is so great. Veolia's overall business is focused on the water treatment industry and therefore will experience substantial changes in revenues, profits and valuation from its activities in this industry.
Dow Chemical Water Division is estimated to treat 15 million gallons per minute. Dow's technologies include Reverse Osmosis, Ultra Filtration, Fine Particle Filtration, Ion Exchange, Adsorbent Resins, Bio Chromatography and Electro-Deionization. Dow also delivers Reverse Osmosis Filtration for Desalination. In spite of high operating costs for their water treatment technologies, demand for DOW water treatment products is expected to remain very strong because the need is so great.
Dow Chemical is a diversified chemical company with broad interests in many sectors of the economy. Because Dow is not focused on water treatment, the company is not expected to experience large variations in revenues, profits and valuation resulting from water equipment sales.
American Water Works offers water and wastewater services to approximately 1,500 communities in 16 states. It operates approximately 80 surface water treatment plants; 500 groundwater treatment plants; 1,000 groundwater wells; 100 wastewater treatment facilities; 1,200 treated water storage facilities; 1,300 pumping stations; 87 dams; and 47,000 miles of mains and collection pipes.
American Water Works offers traditional filtration systems that have no significant competitive advantage over the competition. High operating costs for their water treatment technologies will be a constraint on sales, but demand is expected to remain very strong because the need is so great.
American Water Works is focused on water treatment and is expected to experience significant changes in revenues, profits and valuations from water treatment sales.
Promising New Technology May Offer Solution
An exciting new technology surfaced recently when an emerging company, BioLargo, Inc. (OTCQB:BLGO) announced a breakthrough in water treatment. This short video clip demonstrates the AOS Filter (actually an electro-chemical reactor and filter) that has been validated by the University of Alberta and proven to decontaminate water from recalcitrant contaminants in seconds versus hours required by current technologies, and at only 1/20th the cost of the closest competing technology.
On January 21, 2014, BioLargo issued the press release: "BioLargo Successfully Concludes Proof of Concept and Progresses to Pilot Phase for Its Oil Sands Decontamination Project With University of Alberta"
On May 15, 2014 BioLargo issued a second press release: "BioLargo's Patented AOS Filter Receives Additional Validation for Use in Water Treatment" Dennis Calvert, BioLargo's president, stated: "BioLargo's AOS Filter has been shown to reduce total acid-extractable organics in water at a rate never before demonstrated commercially. Based on proof of claim there is a belief BioLargo may have the lowest cost sustainable solution for the oil sands process-affected water. Having tested our technology, the esteemed University of Alberta is entering the AOS Filter industrial pilot-scale-testing phase, which we expect to confirm its commercial viability to treat oil sands tailings ponds and then eliminate the need for them on a go forward basis. Oil sands are commonly considered one of the most difficult water contamination situations. As such, this pilot project is expected to provide the groundwork for additional water treatment applications, including refining, fracking, remediation, agriculture and industrial waste among others."
Cash is always a big issue with all microcaps and BioLargo is no different. The company reported that cash increased from $92,457 on December 31, 2013 to $373,373 on March 31, 2014. Current Assets increased from $126,146 on December 31, 2013 to $446,459 on March 31, 2014. Current Liabilities decreased from $732, 157 on December 31, 2014 to $508,652 on March 31, 2014. The number of shares outstanding increased from 71,357,532 on December 31, 2013 to 76,409,578 on March 31, 2014 indicating the company may have raised capital in that period.
The company has multiple profit centers and is not reliant on the AOS Filter and has already reported beginning sales with the U.S. government that could become significant.
Risk tolerant investors will find BioLargo attractive because they have the potential to offer a game-changing solution that is needed to help solve the enormous global water crisis. If they are successful, the rewards could be enormous.
The current water treatment technology offered today by the world's largest companies cannot solve the global water crisis because their technologies are not cost-effective. The global leaders of water treatment have all of the tools they need to deliver massive scale to meet the massive global needs, but their high capital investment and high operating cost is holding them back. The industry yearns for low cost solutions.
In spite of the high costs of their products, Veolia, and American Water works are strong buys because their technologies are the only ones available and serve the purpose well enough to sustain strong and fast growing sales in a world desperate for clean water. GE and DOW are large conglomerates that will benefit to a lesser degree, but are very sound financially. BioLargo is a compelling investment consideration for risk-tolerant investors because the newly announced AOS Filter has the potential to revolutionize the way wastewater is treated and reward investors with exceptional returns.
BioLargo's new AOS Filter technology may be able to solve the global water crisis to a much higher degree than today's technologies because it is so much cheaper and cost-effective.
Disclosure: The author has no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. The author wrote this article themselves, and it expresses their own opinions. The author is not receiving compensation for it. The author has no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.
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