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Waste Not, Want Not: A New (Energy Efficiency) Era for Wastewater Treatment

Frances Huessy, VEIC Policy and Public Affairs -

It often takes disasters like the flooding in Southeastern Louisiana this August to remind everyone that America’s infrastructure is at risk—whether highways, bridges, railbeds, or sewage and wastewater treatment systems.

This summer Vermont issued guidance for system upgrades to wastewater facilities. Among other technical points made in the guidance document, it establishes a standard for integrating energy efficiency considerations at the system design level. If other jurisdictions were to model their system upgrades after the Vermont example, sewage and wastewater treatment practice would soon be associated with dramatically lower energy use—with corresponding cost benefits and environmental benefits.

The Energy Efficiency Guidelines for Vermont Wastewater Treatment Facility Upgrades are tied to compliance with federal standards for clean water. But they also call for compliant systems to be energy efficient. This is new. The specifications for the upgrades are also linked to how those upgrades are financed. That is, the energy efficiency guidance applies when municipal wastewater facility managers submit a Preliminary Engineering Report as a condition of receiving support from the federal Clean Water State Revolving Fund for investing in wastewater improvements.

Efficiency Vermont, the statewide energy efficiency utility administered by the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, helped write the guidelines for the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), within the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.

The new guidelines come at a time when nearly all wastewater treatment facilities in Vermont —installed in the years after the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972—are coming to the ends of their useful lives. Originally required to comply with regulations on pollutant discharges into waters throughout the United States, the facilities now must comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Lake Champlain Phosphorus Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) and the Long Island Sound Nitrogen TMDL standards.

Beginning in 2014, while the facilities managers were waiting for Vermont to finalize its rule-setting on both TMDL standards, Efficiency Vermont conducted energy efficiency audits for many municipalities’ equipment and plants. Concurrently, the Water Resources Reform & Development Act (WRRDA) of 2014 authorized support for wastewater and water resources infrastructure projects, encouraging non-federal investments and “innovative methods” for financing wastewater needs.

Armed with good information about ways to lower their future energy costs through energy-efficient equipment, the facilities managers are now at the intersection of environmental benefits from meeting federal clean water standards and lower energy use, and economic benefits to the municipalities and the communities they serve. This is where the “innovative methods” come in.

Energy-efficient equipment and controls, and changes in facilities management practices, fit these provisions of the WRRDA. Innovative energy efficiency, when it is built into the design of a new wastewater system, can result in long-term, significant energy savings, and typically, reductions in energy costs. But cost effectiveness is not the whole story.

The Real Difference: Designing Energy Efficiency into the System, before the Upgrade

With aging facilities’ equipment coming to the end of their natural life cycles, DEC—with compliance pressure from the phosphorus and nitrogen TMDL requirements—had an opportunity to ensure that replacement equipment could serve more than a single purpose.

DEC commissioned Efficiency Vermont to prepare guidelines that can now help “enhance the understanding and incorporation of operational efficiency, life cycle cost analysis, and best design practices during major facility upgrades and refurbishments of wastewater treatment facilities.”

The Guidelines describe cost-effective energy efficiency improvements that can be discussed—prior to completing the system design—among the municipality, the wastewater treatment facility engineer, and Efficiency Vermont engineers for new design projects and simple equipment replacement / refurbishing upgrades.

So when facilities managers apply to DEC for authorization to proceed with their upgrade plans, the Preliminary Engineering Report needs to address energy and water efficiency. Even better, the energy process audits that help inform the Report and are part of the system design work are reimbursable planning expenses under the Clean Water State Revolving Fund.

And the National Implications?

Decades of avoiding regular maintenance, and avoiding planning for equipment and construction upgrades, have given the United States a D+ on the 2013 American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) quadrennial Report Card for America's Infrastructure.

A grade of D means the “infrastructure is in poor to fair condition and mostly below standard, with many elements approaching the end of their service life. A large portion of the system exhibits significant deterioration. Condition and capacity are of significant concern with strong risk of failure.”

Although this is not so much the case in Vermont, because many systems will begin their upgrades once the TMDL rules are set, those D+ grades nationwide cannot be ignored. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security offers daily evidence of it in its Daily Open Source Infrastructure Report, under the subsection, Water and Wastewater Systems Sector

Cities and towns can be debt averse and don’t want to propose large bond issues for upgrading wastewater facilities, even though those bonds release accumulating investment dollars from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund.

What does change the equation is the inevitable F that comes from waiting too long. Holding out until the wastewater treatment system fails, whether due to a climate disruption event or from lack of maintenance and upgrades, puts the community at risk of disease, property damage, and environmental degradation.

System failures from climate disruption events would seem to be too big to imagine, if it weren’t for Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (an estimated 1,207 deaths), and Hurricane / Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 (56 deaths), Hurricane Sandy in 2012 (at least 233 deaths), and Southeastern Louisiana in August 2016. And the next one, wherever and whenever that might be.

Learn more about VEIC’s energy planning services.

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