Frederico Fernandes: Shaping Águas do Porto’s future, respecting its past

Frederico Fernandes was only 36 when he was appointed the chief executive officer of Águas do Porto, the water utility serving the Portuguese coastal city.

He attributes being trusted with a high level of responsibility at a young age to two key traits: skills and confidence.

Four years later and it’s clear the CEO still possesses both in equal measure, frequently attending global conferences and articulating Porto’s water story.

His hometown may be well known for its famous port wine production and iconic Dom Luís Bridge spanning the river Douro. Yet, behind this scenes of the glistening tourist attraction, serious consideration is being given to building in resilience.

“We are different from many utilities because we have the water systems, the sewage systems but also the stormwater systems,” he says.

Speaking to Aquatech Online on the sidelines of the World Water Tech Summit, he says: “Inevitably when you talk about resilience, you are also talking about the resilience of the city itself. You mix the resilience of the systems with the resilience of the city, and you start realising that before the systems, before the pipes, there’s a whole new layer of mitigation of the capability of the city to absorb the water.”

The CEO says that the utility’s strategy to become more resilient is to “give the city itself the capability to absorb these large amounts of water that’s becoming more frequent every day. And with this allowing city to breathe better on rainy days.”

Águas do Porto: looking to the past to inspire the present
It was in 1882 when a concession called Compagnie Générale des Eaux pour l’Etranger began work on Porto’s water network. A water supply, together with sewerage and drainage networks were built before control was passed to the municipality in 1927.

And Águas do Porto was born, now serving 370,000 people with water and 494,500 with wastewater services across a 41.4km2 area.

Fully aware that he is tasked with preserving the history of the utility, the CEO recently hosted what he called an ‘Innovation Bootcamp’, bringing together 200 stakeholders across Information Technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) from across his organisation.

With the average staff age 55, and many staff retiring, he believes that giving people a sense of purpose is what’s going to attract and retain the youngest and sharpest minds to the utility.

“During the boot camps people get involved, especially when you look to the youngsters,” he says. “As a public company, we cannot compete with the salaries offered by private companies. But the people we have are driven by the purpose of the company – they like to feel like the utility has an objective, a strategy.”

Raising a smile and glass to “Aqualitrans”
Mention the word “Aqualitrans” and Fernandes raises a smile from a relatively serious demeanour.

The phrase, according to the utility, is a codeword meaning sustainable energy management at wastewater treatment plants. The cross-border project included partner organisation, the Institute of Science and Innovation in Mechanical Engineering and Industrial Engineering (INEGI).

The ambition was to reduce two major challenges for utilities around the world: wastewater treatment energy and cost.

One of the results included optimising the Sobreiras wastewater treatment plant (WWTP), replacing existing pumps with alternatives, including speed variation. By improving pumping efficiency, consumption was reduced by 15%, savings amounting to around 452,000 kWh/year.

To put this into a wider perspective, the results benefitting Águas do Porto’s WWTPs could be taken and applied to 200 treatment facilities across Europe.

“In just two years, we were able to show very quantifiable and visible results in efficiency, especially on financial aspects,” says Fernandes positively.

It’s no wonder mention of the project makes the CEO smile: he estimates it has saved €80,000 (S$126,058.40) per year, with the investment paid off in less than a year.

“When you look to consumption, it’s about 8% of the energy consumption that you manage to reduce with low investment, so it was a very high productive project.

Water reuse plans march ahead
Portugal’s Ministry for the Environment announced in 2019 that it would be pushing for the country’s 50 largest wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) in the country to increase their capacity for reuse by 10% by 2025 and 20% by 2030.

As a result, Águas do Porto has been actively looking to options on reuse, working with engineering consultancy Elemento Finito.

Work so far has identified how it can connect its two WWTPs – Sobreiras and Freixo – to treat and share resources.

“We’re talking about the biggest investment from the water company since they’ve been built 20 years ago – between 40 to 50 million euros,” he says.

Fernandes outlines two challenges, effectively taking direct potable reuse off the table.

“First of all, we do not require the additional potable water [reclaimed from wastewater], so there has to be financial logic to every decision,” he says. “We don’t need it for now but will probably need in five, or even 10 years’ time.”

To add perspective, Águas do Porto currently bulk buys its drinking water for approximately €0.50/m3.

The CEO adds: “Secondly, if we have fresh water, how can we explain that half of the population of the city will be supplied by wastewater and the other half freshwater?”

Rather than potable uses, Águas do Porto is instead evaluating the local markets for the reclaimed water: street cleaning, parks or other industries that could use not quite 100% potable water.

The plans for the advancements to the wastewater plants will be presented to the municipality in Spring this year.

Creating a utility of the future
Running a public sector service, Fernandes freely admits that he can’t compete with the private sector budgets or target consumers with elaborate television advertising campaigns.

Instead, he feels the strength for future water utilities will be communicating a transparent strategy that things are changing, yet customers can still expect a better level of service.

“We are getting more information about consumption and water quality,” he adds. “So with this data, it means people can easily find out more information than they could six years ago. So you have to have a strategy to communicate effectively.”