It may seem contradictory to conceive of the sewage system as a source of green energy. But pioneering inventor and engineer Lynn Mueller has always prided himself in being an out-of-the-box thinker.
That's what led him to develop the breakthrough wastewater energy transfer (WET) technology that captures untapped thermal energy from large underground wastewater pipes and recycles it to provide heat and hot water to homes, buildings, districts and cities.
Mueller's SHARC Energy has signed a five-year supply and maintenance agreement with the City of Vancouver that will see SHARC deploy and maintain five of its patent-pending WET systems to the city's False Creek Neighbourhood Energy Utility (NEU).
This filtering units screen waste products that are being continuously flushed into the sewage system. The SHARC screens allow warm water to flow more efficiently through heat exchangers.
"We are pleased the City of Vancouver has chosen SHARC Energy and its proprietary and worldwide patent-pending SHARC system to help the False Creek NEU and the city reach its renewable energy goals," said Mueller, SHARC's founder, chairman and CEO.
The False Creek utility has set a target of drawing 100 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030 as part of the city's Climate Emergency Action Plan. This new $100 million expansion project is projected to increase the capacity of False Creek's existing WET system from 3.2 MW to 9.8 MW, cutting an additional 4,400 tonnes of carbon emissions per year.
SHARC poised for five-fold growth in 2023
Upon completion, False Creek will become the largest WET project in North America and effectively serve as an urban scale model for the hundreds of cities around the world currently interested in SHARC's proprietary technology.
Environmental scientists and urban planners believe wastewater energy transfer is going to be a key element of climate action plans both at the district and urban levels.
"When I started studying how much energy our sewage systems were just throwing away for nothing, I knew I had to do something," Mueller said. "I'm 68 years old and my granddaughter is afraid the world is going to end. I just can't have that under my watch and so I made her a promise that I would do everything I could do to help save the world.
"I'm keeping my word and every day I love the challenge of growing this company. I love the fact we're doing something good."
The Vancouver deal caps what has already been a momentous year for SHARC. The sales pipeline for its wastewater thermal energy recovery systems rose to $11 million as of the end of November, a gain of 40 per cent from Q1 2022.
According to Mueller, SHARC Energy is on track to increase gross revenues by 500 per cent in 2023, and has previously set what now appears to be a very modest target of $100 million in sales by 2025. The company is rapidly scaling-up production.
Vancouver False Creek project served as SHARC bait
"This (False Creek project) takes our company to the next level," said Mueller. "Vancouver has served as our proving ground. The city has been very gracious in helping us develop the technology over the last five years. We spent a couple of million dollars testing our equipment there and perfecting it, because we just didn't have a lot of places where we could test and had that kind of flow.
"There's about 250 million gallons a day that come into that pumping station under the Camby Street Bridge. So it gave us a phenomenal opportunity to work with the city to test our equipment and prove out the project."
SHARC first partnered with the City of Vancouver in 2017, retrofitting two of its prototype designs into the False Creek district sewage system as part of a pilot project. This allowed Mueller to successfully demonstrate his pioneering WET tech lived up to its promise.
It's WET systems are typically 400 per cent efficient; "for every dollar you spend to operate it, it has an output of $4 worth of energy," Mueller explained. "I love what we've been able to do here in Vancouver for green energy.
"It's really been the impetus now for hundreds of projects coming forward. Our marketing team now fields probably 10 or 20 calls a day from districts looking to replicate what we're doing here."
The deal with the City of Vancouver is the culmination of years of research and development of the SHARC systems under the guidance of Mueller, the gregarious owner who founded the company in 2010.
Mueller decided to make Vancouver its headquarters because of his love of the city's green spaces and entrenched ESG commitment.
"Vancouver is the best place in the world to live, and I really applaud their climate action," he says. "There's only about 11 cities in Canada that even report their climate action, let alone do something about it. And Vancouver's absolutely No. 1 in climate action."
Mueller devised SHARC tech out of frustration over monthly heating bill
According to Mueller, the impetus for inventing the SHARC system came from frustration over his monthly home heating bills.
"I had two teenage daughters that seemed to be showering constantly and doing laundry and I was spending over a $100 a month on hot water, using gas to heat my water tank.
"So when I was thinking of the business case for SHARC, I thought, 'Jesus, I'm throwing away $1,200 a year and everybody in my neighbourhood in Richmond and everybody in the city is throwing away energy exactly like me.' But I thought, 'Why can't we get that energy back?' All that heat we don't reuse, it just gets dissipated or goes back into the ocean and contributes to climate change by heating the ocean."
"People don't realize the amount of water that runs through the sewer system. In Vancouver, it's nearly a billion gallons a day, probably in the 800 million gallon range a day. And it's all been heated to 20 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit, and that's all heat energy that has been thrown away, whether it's residential or industry. So my thinking was, why don't we just get it back?"
"So I took this conundrum as a personal challenge and discovered just how little I knew about the sewage industry. It took about five years to figure out the technology and engineering of it, but now our company has created the finest sewage screen in the world and the largest system capacity and it's thanks to the City of Vancouver that we had the opportunity to test and prove our system."
SHARC set to conquer world market
SHARC is in the process of deploying both its WET tech around the world. Early in 2021, the company secured a contract to install its thermal energy recovery system to the District Energy System at Colorado’s National Western Center in Denver.
This centre is an innovation hub for food and agricultural research. SHARC's system will recover thermal energy from wastewater at a harvesting rate of 3,000 gallons per minute, which will generate net carbon dioxide emissions savings of 2,600 metric tonnes per year.
SHARC is also demonstrating the efficacy of its WET tech by deploying it at residential properties. In October, the company announced that it was installing its smaller scale PIRANHA system into two new 20-story high-rises in the Bronx borough of New York City. "The energy never leaves the building," Mueller said.
The U.S. Department of Energy estimates 350 billion kilowatt-hours of energy flow into U.S. sewers in the form of heat each year. This creates an enormous market for the implementation of SHARC tech not only in the U.S, and Canada, but also around the world.
"We spent years perfecting it," said Mueller. "We've got it where we want it and we are selling our system with great confidence all over the world. And now we're looking at doing an installation in New Zealand, for instance, that will be four times the size of what we're going to be deploying in Vancouver."