California thrust its water utilities front and center during the recent drought. Water utility managers, who had been accustomed to working behind the scenes, became the face of water conservation at city council debates. In response to the 2014 executive order from the Governor of California, water utilities lobbied with commercial and industrial water users to conserve water, and even designed marketing campaigns to drive water conservation. Over the last two years, California’s water utilities achieved ambitious conservation goals, cutting water use by 25% and even 36%. With those dramatic conservation wins, water utilities cut into already dwindling revenues.
The budget challenges in California reflect the dimensions of a national crisis for water in the US. “Municipalities are approaching a breaking point as utility assets reach the end of their useful lives,” notes Keith Hays, Vice President of Bluefield Research. More than 50% of US municipal water & wastewater infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life with over 240,000 water main breaks per year. In the next decade, Bluefield estimates that US municipal water utilities face an overwhelming US$532 billion in capital improvements to address deteriorating piping networks, combined sewer overflows, and rising population demands for new water supplies. Federal funding for municipal water has declined steadily in the past 40 years to barely 4%, leaving municipalities to finance infrastructure projects locally,” adds Hays.
To fill funding gaps, some pioneering California utilities are turning to long-ignored energy efficiency funds. San Luis Obispo’s (SLO) has built the state’s first partnership between an energy and a water utility to fund the development, design and implementation of energy efficient equipment at its wastewater treatment plant. “We’re leading the way in California to pursue the first public-private partnership of this kind with PG&E that will help improve energy efficiency at a major municipal facility,” SLO Utilities Director Carrie Mattingly stated. SLO faced a consent decree to upgrade its wastewater treatment plants at the same time that it was ordered to reduce water consumption by 25%. “Our facility is over 50 years old and some of the equipment dates back to the ‘60s,” notes Mattingly.
“We are the biggest energy user of power in the city of San Luis Obispo,” said Howard Brewen, supervisor of the plant. San Luis Obispo’s wastewater treatment plant’s energy bill has a price tag of $400-$500,000 a year. The improvements will reduce energy use by 20%. The project includes new control systems and a Combined Heat and Power (CHP) system that generates electricity for the facility using the natural biogas.
“PG&E welcomes the opportunity to support the City of San Luis Obispo in achieving its energy efficiency, financial and sustainability goals,” said Pat Mullen, customer service director for the utility. “Through this innovative partnership, the City will save money, decrease its energy use and reduce its carbon footprint. The result is real economic and environmental benefits for this community and our customers who reside in the area.” The improvements to the plant will help the environment by reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses that are released into the atmosphere. The upgrades will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by one million pounds annually. That’s the equivalent of planting 378 acres of forest, taking 96 cars off the road or powering 69 homes. At a total cost of approximately $9.5 million, SLO projects that this project could save up to $8 million over 25 years.
What is the role of water utilities in distributed energy grids?
Partners like SLO WWTP can provide critical resources to energy utilities like PG&E. More advanced wastewater equipment can time operation to coincide with off-peak energy use periods for demand response programs. Distributed water infrastructure can integrate within district energy plans and even within electricity microgrids to extend their ability to operate without electricity from the energy grid.
For more information on the San Luis Obispo Water Resource Recovery Project, see http://slowrrfproject.org/.