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Jeffrey Fulgham was appointed Chief Sustainability Officer and Ecomagination Leader in April, 2010. He is responsible for leading the division’s sustainability initiative. As chief sustainability officer and ecomagination leader, he[…]

A conversation with the Chief Sustainability Officer of GE Power & Water.

Question: What is the state of the U.S. water system?

Jeffrey Fulgham: Domestic water that’s provided to our homes today, you know, comes through a series of water treatment processes and piping and pumps and, you know, things that bring that water to us today. And then the waste water is returned back to treatment, to treatment plants. Couple of challenges though, is municipalities are facing, one is that the infrastructure is aging, it’s leaking, there’s, you know, between, a lot of cities have between 30 and 60% of the water that they produce never makes it to the end of the line because it leaks out of these pipes. It’s difficult for them to replace it because there just isn’t the reserve, the revenue to be able to invest in this replacement.

One of the other challenges is, it’s very energy intensive. Between 3 and 20% of a typical municipality’s budget goes to energy to produce and pump this water around. So we look at smart grid-type of technology, not unlike we see in the energy smart grid, is necessary for water to really improve this system. Part of that is to be able to detect where are these leaks, to be able to be predictive to get out ahead. So instead of waiting for a leak to occur and having, you know, all of the emergency, digging up the roads, you know, all the problems that that might cause, be nice to be able to predict when might that failure occur, to be able to predict what are the costs over the next year or the next decade, in that infrastructure. We as consumers, if we really understood where our water was going and we had some control over that, and we could, you know, use the water in off-peak hours, all the same type of things that we try to do with the energy grid, I think it would really improve our overall consumptive habits of water.

Another thing is that the water pricing structure is, it’s a real challenge for us today. Many parts of the world, including many parts of the United States, basically water is free. And so as long as water is free or highly subsidized, there’s really, there’s kind of no incentive for us to reduce our consumption or change our behaviors. So I think a smart system would give us that insight that we need to really change behaviors. Because I do think people want to be smart consumers of our water, but without that information, it’s very difficult to make those smart decisions.

Question: Has any city or state figured out a solution?

Jeffrey Fulgham: You know, there’s a lot of really smart technologies being deployed now in cities. A couple of examples, Singapore has been brilliant in the way that they’re thinking about their, kind of the overall broad scope of their water system. For many years, Singapore relied on Malaysia for their supply of their water, a giant pipeline coming from Malaysia to Singapore. And over the last decade or so, they’ve been very proactive in trying to diversify their water supply. So, for instance, they now have a program they refer to as the “Four Taps.” They have four different ways that they get water. One is that pipeline from Malaysia. The second is through very advanced reuse, waste water reuse technologies that they’ve deployed so that a significant portion of their overall water supply actually comes from treated waste water streams, fantastic technology.

The third is around capture of rainwater. You know, a lot of rain in Singapore, but most of it runs off. So now what they’ve been able to do is build a series of reservoirs and catchment basins to catch and purify that water. And then fourth, they use desalination technology to kind of make up the difference. So between these four various technologies, smart infrastructure system to monitor, they really are brilliant in the way they’ve put a long-term plan together around their water supply. 

Question: What is a solution to meeting water demands?

Jeffrey Fulgham: The future really is, one of the major solutions for our future water challenge is going to be reuse of water. And, you know, there’s often a negative connotation to that, people think, oh, toilet to tap, we’ve heard flush to brush, shower to flower, so a lot of different thoughts. But really, the beauty of waste water reuse is we can actually purify that waste water way beyond the quality needed for drinking water. And in fact, it’s a nice, consistent, high quality water. You know, people don’t have much issue with desalination, to be able to take seawater and make drinking water and actually waste water is much easier to treat than seawater.

But independent of that, that negative reaction to waster water reuse, if you think about it, 90% of the world’s water is not used for human consumption, or for domestic use. So we’ve got a great opportunity to treat and reuse our waste water for agriculture irrigation, for industrial uses, for a lot of other uses before we ever get to the point where we have to use it for, you know, direct potable water reuse. So today we see a lot of adaptation of reuse water to take the load off of streams and rivers and fresh water supplies, to be used in industrial plants.

Question: What is ‘waste to value’?

Jeffrey Fulgham: Another great area related to water reuse is this idea of waste to value. How you take a waste stream, don’t look at that as a liability any more. There’s a lot of goodies in waste water, for instance. In a municipal waste water system, tremendous amount of carbon content, which you can convert to energy. So this idea of having a waste water plant that is carbon neutral or actually generates, you know, more power than it consumes, a tremendous opportunity. Phosphorous is a dwindling resource, globally, yet there’s a phosphorous in waste streams. So there’s some cool technologies coming out that are going to be able to selectively remove things like phosphate or metals like copper, from a waste stream and be able to process those into a finished product. So we need to stop thinking about a waste water stream as pure waste and look at that as an asset. Not unlike we’ve been looking at, you know, if you think about recycled aluminum and plastic and all that used to be a pure waste stream, that’s now raw material for other processes. So waste water in the future will be a raw material for many processes.

Question: What is a Chief Sustainability Officer?

Jeffrey Fulgham: The Chief Sustainability Officer role, or whatever you might refer to that in other companies, is a pretty new role, although I was reading a study recently that said about 150 of the Fortune 500 companies have a similar role in place. So, as I think about it, within GE, it really is to accelerate what we’ve been doing for years around our ecomagination campaign, and that is to balance a customer’s environmental challenges with their economic challenges. Where truly green is green, where you can do the right thing for the environment, which is also very positive for the bottom line.

And so the way I look at my role, is in kind of three concentric circles, if you will, with kind of—first, we have to focus on GE. We have to make sure that we are going to be sustainable over the long term. We have 7,000 sites around the world and so one of the things that I do is work with these sites to make sure that we’re optimizing our own water performance. We’ve set a goal of 25% reduction in water across our fleet, for instance, by 2015 and we’re already at over 30% reduction, so we want to continue to accelerate that and reduce our own water footprint.

Also, internally, we want to look at those products and services that will enable our customers to continue to meet their environmental and economic challenges and raise employee engagement and employee awareness. So, that first wave, if you will, is what we do internally. And then secondly, we work with our customers and partners around the world to make sure that we’re helping them meet their sustainability goals. So I spend a lot of time with our senior level customers to understand what are their needs and how can we make sure that the products and services that we’re delivering enable them to achieve their goals.

And then kind of this third level out is the broader community. How do we make sure that the mega-cities that will be built in the future have a smarter water system, and so we work a lot with the new cities and existing cities to improve that infrastructure. We’re working on solutions for the bottom of the pyramid. How do we reach those, there’s that 1.2 billion people that don’t have access to fresh water today or the 2-and-a-half billion people that don’t have access to sanitation. So we’re working on technology solutions, not just for the high tech companies, but also what’s an easily deployable, repeatable, low-cost solution for those small communities and those rural villages around the world?

Question: How does it differ from other C-suite positions?

Jeffrey Fulgham: The position is quite a bit different than the typical C-suite, you know, a chief financial officer, or even my old role as chief marketing officer, in that you’re really, I think, looking longer term. You’re looking out that three to five years and it’s more of a thought leadership position and really trying to make sure that the company is looking for the long term and investing for that long term, very focused on our customer’s long term goals. A lot of the other C-suite positions, rightfully so, are focused a little bit more on the quarter, or, you know, the next year. We have to deliver for our shareholders, we have to deliver the financials.

So this position has been a lot of fun in that it really is looking out and, you know, keeping in touch with what’s the next generation technology. What are the new clean tech companies that we need to be following and be aware of? How are we connecting the dots between our customer need and the research and development and technologies that we develop. So, it’s quite a bit different and I think because of that, we need to pull in leaders, like myself, that are in these roles to think differently and help our companies.

Question: What should the price of water be?

Jeffrey Fulgham: You know, the price, that’s a real, that’s a hot topic. Where we stand with the price of water is it needs to be priced relative to the value received from that water. The challenge is, in places where water is most scarce around the world, often the subsidies, or pricing, is such that it really doesn’t encourage reduction of use, it doesn’t—sorry, tongue tied there.

Often where water is underpriced or not priced for value, there’s no real incentive to reduce consumption or change behaviors. And so the most important thing, I think, relative to price, is that it has to be priced according to the investments made to get that water to you. You know, people say, water is a human right, and I completely agree. What is not necessarily a human right, or free, is that treatment and transport of the water to get it conveniently to us. So, I think the most important thing is that people realize the value of that water. You know, today our water bill in most parts of the world is much less than our cable bill, much less than our monthly cell phone bill, and yet you could certainly live without those long before you could live without water. So we are encouraging the world to look more wisely at water pricing, and one of the challenges regarding price for it, is agriculture. 70% of the world’s water supply goes to our agriculture markets for irrigation.

So if you think about it today, if we subsidize the price of water for irrigation, and there’s no real desire on a, you know, on a farmer’s part to spend a lot of money for low-flow irrigation or smarter irrigation technologies, because it really is a cost to them. Instead, if we would think of those subsidies for low-flow irrigation, for smart technologies, you know, net/net, the farmer doesn’t pay any more, but we, as a society, have much more water available then for our own consumption.