Little bugs, big changes:
Savannah Machinery Works uses innovative bioremediation tactics to aid Mitsubishi Power in environmentally friendly journey.
The urgent need to achieve global decarbonization requires an
unprecedented level of cooperation, across industries and geographies
Kaizen. It is a Japanese word for “improvement” that represents a philosophy of continuous improvement and change. One summary of the philosophy is “change for the good,” but it’s important to distinguish that “change for the good” does not at all mean “change for the sake of change.” The idea is to always look for improvement; in yourself, in your actions, and in your practices. Mitsubishi Power Americas prides itself on our philosophy of continuous improvement.
This is not just for personal benefit, but for the advancement of everyone – our customers, our sub-contractors, and our environment. That’s the subject of today’s story: a prime example of our commitment to improving ourselves and our practices and upholding the code of Kaizen.
Kaizen. It is a Japanese word for “improvement” that represents a philosophy of continuous improvement and change. One summary of the philosophy is “change for the good,” but it’s important to distinguish that “change for the good” does not at all mean “change for the sake of change.” The idea is to always look for improvement; in yourself, in your actions, and in your practices. Mitsubishi Power Americas prides itself on our philosophy of continuous improvement. This is not just for personal benefit, but for the advancement of everyone – our customers, our sub-contractors, and our environment. That’s the subject of today’s story: a prime example of our commitment to improving ourselves and our practices and upholding the code of Kaizen.
If you’ve been there before, you know what Savannah is like. It’s a beautiful part of the country where the humidity is opaque and Spanish moss blankets the city, seemingly transporting you back in time. In a place like Savannah, the environment and the city are intertwined and are part of each other’s identity. Our Mitsubishi Power facility there, Savannah Machinery Works (SMW), is no exception. To have an industrial complex in the middle of a vibrant environmental system is something to be sensitive to.
We care about our footprint because we are reminded, each and every day, what that footprint will stomp out if we don’t pay attention and stay ahead of the game. There’s not much human activity going on in the surrounding property. We are about 5 miles from the nearest port, an enclave bordered by pristine wetlands, which flow into the marshlands, which greet the ocean. In a place like this, the wildlife are your neighbors. You wave to the turkey who watches you park, you check in on the alligator who lives across the street, and you nudge the tree frog that sits on the card reader to get him out of the way so you can clock into work. For many, it’s downright Edenic. It is in this place that an experiment began four years ago and has made its way into our plans each year as the environmental conditions are met.
Savannah doesn’t have a treatment system to process wastewater and discharge it back to the city. In the spring of 2018, we had to clean up our wastewater in a circuitous fashion: collect stormwater and wastewater, load it onto trucks, ship it to Jacksonville (Florida) to an industrial wastewater treatment facility there. That was normal, industry-approved practice. At least half of the nearly 60,000 gallons of wastewater shipped to Florida that year was exclusively stormwater. At the time, stormwater also had to be processed in Jacksonville, because we could not properly treat the water on site at SMW. That is what got us thinking – since our permit allows it, why don’t we just use an on-site oil-water separator to treat our stormwater? The primary answer was that we still didn’t have any way to clean up the residual oil particles in the water after most of the oil had been siphoned off the top. Therefore, we had to come up with a way to completely remove these particles to make sure we were releasing safe, clean water back into the community and to the environment. That is where the microbes come in and focus the story to fit squarely into the environmental realm, but more on that later. Processing just half of that stormwater in the 2018 fiscal year through the oil-water separator would have been a significant cost savings. But to say nothing of the financial cost, the real benefits of processing our water on-site would be that, overall, things would be much safer. It would keep contaminated water off the roads and require fewer trucks to make fewer trips, therefore reducing our carbon footprint. So, we got to work.
We should pause here for a reminder that this process that SMW was doing with its wastewater – collecting, transporting, processing – was standard industry practice. SMW was adhering to guidelines and policies outlined for us. It just happened that we saw an opportunity to improve those policies and took it. Ok, back in the story.
As long as stormwater had been exposed to just oil and grease (which was the case for a significant amount of water), we could send it through the oil-water separator located on SMW’s property and discharge the clean water back into the environment. Processing stormwater on-site would cut down on costs drastically, and the process is simple. Oil floats, so the system siphons the water out from under it. An oil recycler vendor then takes the recovered oil to a used oil recycling facility in Savannah. The more of this we could do in Savannah, the less we had to pay to send it to Florida. Again, the primary issue that we came across was that there wasn’t an efficient way to clean up the residual oil and grease on-site (that is, until we came across the Ultra-Archaea).
We started with an experiment. Old-school science that required going out to the sheds at SMW and stockpiling whatever clear containers we could find – old jugs, flower vases, used fish tanks, the like. Those items were cleaned and then moved indoors to begin experimenting with an oil-eating microbe that had been on the market for about ten years. We were able to mimic, on a smaller scale, the conditions that the stormwater would undergo at the plant. What we were trying to do was observe and predict how quickly, or at what rate, things would settle up and how effectively the microbes would clean up the residual oil.
As a strategy, biotreatment, or bioremediation, emerged in experimental markets about 30 years ago. It quickly proved to be a forward-thinking method of treatment, both economically and environmentally. Bioremediation changed the game for industrial contaminated sites, and after a rapid evolution in the recent decade, these implementations can now be built directly into a facility’s operations. Biotreatment is more streamlined and simplified, and ultimately makes things much safer for everyone. The primary safety advantage to biotreatment is that these processes allow for taking care of the problem in-situ. There is no sharing, spreading, or moving contaminated things to be treated. Hauling a waste stream can potentially be extremely hazardous. Moving this from one place to another exposes the community to these threats as well. Bioremediation removes these risks by keeping the treatment processes on-site and contained.
The Ultra-Archaea (affectionately sometimes called “bugs”) are a special strain of microbes bred specifically to eat oil (or sludge), digest these particles, and then break them down. Therefore, these microbes help to digest the residual oil that escapes the oil-water separator. They reproduce at a rapid rate, use oil as a food source, and build a colony, which continues to feed on the residual particles and clean the water. When their food source becomes scarce or disappears, the microbes naturally die off and decompose into harmless organic material. The microbes break down oil into water, carbon dioxide, and lipids (fats). These fats are, in turn, ultimately integrated into the ecosystem as a food source for plants and fish.
The Ultra-Archaea are an efficient and effective method of wastewater cleanup. They’re natural, resilient, and simple. They are comparatively inexpensive to other water treatment methods, and most importantly, they’re safe for us to use and for the environment to sustain. There are virtually no downsides to using these microbes (which are found in nature) to our advantage. The bottom line is that this process transforms environmentally toxic carbon-containing molecules (oil) into beneficial carbon-containing molecules (lipids) and gas. The gases the microbes create is a natural process and are not considered as contributing to a carbon footprint. This fact is important to us, as our fundamental responsibilities are to the environment and people – our employees, customers, sub-contractors, and supply chains. We try to be thoughtful in everything we do, and to minimize our negative impact on society and reduce our environmental footprint. These “bugs” provide an elegant solution to all these concerns and emphasize the fact that we don’t require a regulation to drive us to do things the best way they can be done. We just do them, and make improvements where we see fit.
The practice is getting some age on it now, since we use it whenever we have enough stormwater and wastewater on site. The bugs are a wild success so far, and we consider them a proven solution. We are excited about this, and will promote its use, but it is important for any facility to explore the options that work best for them. If you are truly committed to continuous improvement, it is important to remember that best practices are just that – practices that work best for your plant, in your state, for your community. What is best won’t necessarily work for everyone. Our success with Ultra-Archaea at Savannah Machinery Works is a sustainable practice we can use as needed. Importantly, the success of this idea provides us with courage, and inspires curiosity. We wonder now – what else is out there?
When most people hear the words “power plant” or “power generator,” they probably don’t think of environmental safety or sensitivity. What likely comes to mind is an image akin to something you would find in a history book about the industrial revolution. As you can guess, that connotation is an outdated and damaging one. The reality today is that many facilities like the ones under Mitsubishi Power Americas and Savannah Machinery Works, are very environmentally conscious. We are concerned with reducing waste, reducing impact, and creating a positive lasting effect on the world. This last topic is something that Savannah Machinery Works is going above and beyond in trying to accomplish, and it’s important to remember that this can be achieved in a number of different ways, and that a number of different approaches need to work together to build a 100% renewable energy future. Furthering that goal, the turbines we’re manufacturing in Savannah today use natural gas as a fuel, but the turbines we’ll be manufacturing soon for Intermountain Power Agency will be using renewable hydrogen as a fuel, and is another great example of our dedication to a Change in Power. The way we sought to create a positive lasting impact this time was through treating the stormwater in Savannah. But tomorrow, it’ll be something else, somewhere else. To gain momentum and to garner the courage to do something a little bit bigger than was done yesterday is the goal; to continuously learn, adapt, and improve – and to hold above everything else – kaizen.