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Plumbing the sewers for energy paying off for one company

Ian Harvey
Plumbing the sewers for energy paying off for one company

Lynn Mueller hated the idea of money going down the drain so he and his friends got together and built a multi-million-dollar enterprise extracting energy from sewage.
It sounds simple enough, and in theory it is, but there’s been a lot of hard work and a little luck in between, he says.

“I saw a 2005 U.S. Department of Energy study that said $40 billion a year in lost energy goes down the drain,” says Mueller, who co-founded International Wastewater Systems in 2010 and has since rebranded it as Sharc Energy Systems, a publicly-traded company. “That’s 350-billion kilowatt-hours of heat energy down the drains in the United States each year.”

Eight years later Sharc Energy Systems is shifting from a startup to revenue producing entity with contracts in Canada, the U.S., Scotland and pushing into Europe.

“Since Jan. 1 (when carbon taxes kicked in) the phone has been ringing off the hook,” says Mueller. “We’ve hired another engineer and we’re bringing on another to handle feasibility studies. We expect to raise revenues 20-fold this year as we move from the R&D phase to full commercialization.”

The system is based on thermodynamics, the same principle of geothermal and air heat pumps extracting energy from the 20 to 25 C temperature differential between the sewage and wastewater system and the ambient temperature.

Dealing with raw sewage, however, comes with unique challenges and the centrepiece of the Sharc system is a proprietary filter that separates solids from the liquid stream which then goes on to pass through the heat exchangers in a closed loop system returning the stream to the sewer and back on its way to the treatment plant.

The former refrigerator mechanic turned his hand to energy reclamation after he flunked at retirement.

“My wife said I was driving her crazy so I had to find something,” he says with a laugh.

He went to his friend Daryle Anderson at CIR Mechanical, a plumbing contractor, and their inspiration was the installation of a sewage energy system at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Village.

Their first project was a 60-unit residential building with developer Adera where they installed a wastewater heat recovery system.

The first system was 400 per cent efficient, saving about 75 per cent of energy costs to heat water, the second is 500 per cent efficient, Mueller says.
They’ve since installed a system for Adera at a larger development and put in systems at the Vancouver False Creek Energy system in readiness for expansion there.
Sharc Energy also has a $8.77-million contract with the Scottish government to develop systems in five locations with 175 more potential locations identified.

“One of those locations will generate 20 Mw,” he says, noting the potential is almost limitless. “New York City, for example, has 1.4 billion gallons flowing through their system. Just a one per cent drop in temperature we could save millions of dollars an hour, not to mention carbon footprint.”
Their installation at DC Water in Washington, D.C., is about to come online, providing heating and cooling for the utility’s 150,000-square-foot headquarters directly located at the treatment plant.

They’ve also landed a deal in California with the state and local utilities to install a small version of the Sharc, the Piranha. Another version, the Mako is about to go into production.

“We install the systems at no cost up front and get paid back over 20 years,” he says. “We have an order for 1,000 now but we think we will put in 1,000 a year in California because they’re moving to zero carbon by 2020.”

The key is economies of scale, he says, because smaller structures don’t return the investment as quickly making district heating systems for large complexes ideal.

“A 60-unit condo would cost about $300,000 and pay back in seven years but a 300-unit structure would pay back in two years,” Mueller says.
Also, he says, the systems reduce carbon footprints more cost effectively than almost any other measure and that’s driving interest as well.

“We use high quality stainless steel on these systems,” he says. “We started with mild steel but I saw bolt rusting and that was it. I couldn’t stand it. It’s all designed for easy access for repair, something I learned from my days in refrigeration. It’s self-monitoring with all the data being gathered for self-predictive maintenance.”
All the manufacturing is done in Port Coquitlam, B.C. and they’re working flat out, he says.

“We’re looking for more space but we’re fiercely Canadian, so everything will be made here,” he says. “We’re working on solar grids now to offset AC loads.”

It’s not about cashing in, Mueller insists, it’s about building a sustainable company for a sustainable future.

“This is for my daughters and my grandkids,” he says. “We want to leave a legacy for them and our employees. We want them to think of working here as a lifelong career.”

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