The Utility Of The Future: What Is It, And How Do We Get There?
The “Utility of the Future” isn’t what you think it is. The term may appear cliché or overly idealistic, but the new Utility of the Future (or UOTF) is a bona fide — perhaps soon to be certified — movement in the wastewater industry. The National Association of Clean Water Industries (NACWA), the Water Environment Federation (WEF), and the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF) are cooperatively developing a set of criteria that would classify a utility as UOTF-certified, should the industry adopt the standard.
Full details of the joint project will be published in a paper due out in January 2013 [UPDATE: Report now available for download], but I learned plenty from a presentation delivered by Dr. Kenneth Rubin at the 104th Annual Meeting of the Water and Wastewater Manufacturers Association (WWEMA) in Las Vegas earlier this month.
Defining A ‘Utility of the Future’
Rubin believes that the United States is in the early stage of a new age of wastewater treatment, perhaps five years into a 30-year cycle. Whereas the “utility of the past” was merely concerned with moving wastewater as far downstream as possible and treating it to levels that were acceptable for discharging, the so-named Utility of the Future does much more than merely collect, treat, and discharge waste.
“We are resource managers,” said Rubin. “Our job is to look at our assets — water nutrients, biosolids, metal, people, and land — in terms of resources. How do we put these things to work in a way that benefits us, benefits our communities, and benefits the economy? That’s the story we need to tell. That’s the story of the Utility of the Future.”
Telling (Or Selling) The Story
The UOTF initiative is essentially a sales pitch for innovation and infrastructure investment, but a very important one. It illustrates water solutions that produce triple-bottom-line results, which is to say they have social, environmental, and economic benefits.
The technologies that enable this “everybody wins” scenario already exist — and part of the UOTF draft report will highlight successful stories such as at DC Water, East Bay Municipal Utility District, and the Hampton Roads Sanitation District — but it is rarely utilized. Rubin quipped that of the 16,000 wastewater plants in the United States, 15,900 have never heard of the Utility of the Future. Therein lies the main objective of the initiative: raising awareness that will inspire action.
Because financing is such an issue for municipalities, the awareness — or sales pitch, so to speak — really needs to be brought to Washington, where legislative and regulatory steps can be taken to support infrastructure investment. One such step, suggested by Rubin, was to channel existing grants available through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture, and other agencies into municipal water and wastewater. This would help reduce municipalities’ financial risk, which is another major stumbling block to innovation.
The “hook” in the sales pitch — for both Washington and municipalities — is universal benefit. “It’s good for everybody to be a Utility of the Future,” said Rubin. “That’s the message.”
Breaking Down The Triple Bottom Line
Drilling it down even further, the real music to any politician’s ears is the social benefit: more technology and manufacturing jobs, higher household incomes, more R&D investment, more tax receipts, and a better balance of trade. “It’s not going to take very much, from where we are today, to get us to being the largest exporter of environmental goods and services in the world,” asserted Rubin.
Everything hinges, however, on the first step, which is to overcome the “utility of the past” mentality and become a true resource manager. The environmental and economic benefits that result from optimized resource management are the triggers for the social benefits, thus satisfying the triple-bottom-line objective — simplified as people, planet, and profit.
Developing energy and operating efficiencies are obvious ways to get started and save money, but making money comes into the picture through more advanced activities such as water reuse and biosolids reuse. “The energy value in biosolids is 10 times the energy cost of running a wastewater treatment plant,” said Rubin, “so if we turned our wastewater treatment plants into energy factories, we could export 90% of the energy.”
And, again, this is not a pipe dream — it’s happening right now. The aforementioned East Bay Municipal Utility District, through its FOG (fats, oil, and grease) methane program, is not only energy independent; the plant sells electricity back to the grid. Solar and wind power is widely used and growing, and 420 wastewater reuse systems throughout Florida proves, according to Rubin, that “water reuse can be institutionalized.”
As previewed at the WWEMA Annual Meeting and set for official debut in January, the Utility of the Future will be a standard-bearer that provides insight on best practices — to cut costs, raise revenue, and make better communities — so that success can be replicated nationwide.
In an age and an industry sometimes consumed by pessimism, Rubin projected optimism in closing his presentation. “The business is not broken,” he said. “The market is moving in the right direction, but we need help in some key places.”
We also need help from some key people, it would seem, since the planned rollout would require the buy-in from those in Washington and local governments. Though it’s the Utility of the Future at stake, we’re still dealing with the politics of the present.
Still, Rubin’s optimism may be warranted — “universal benefit” is certainly a strong pitch. Let’s just hope it hits the mark.
Do you think the Utility of the Future initiative will have an impact? What obstacles do you foresee? Is your plant ahead of or behind the curve? Please share your thoughts below...