From The Editor | October 13, 2016

Building A Sustainable Solution For Wastewater Infrastructure

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga

According to a fact sheet from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), wastewater treatment plants in the U.S. use about 30 billion kWh every year and are expected to use 20 percent more energy in the coming decades, yet the wastewater they are treating contains about five times more energy than is needed for its treatment.

“In recent years a growing number of utilities responsible for clean water have been moving from strict wastewater treatment to water resource management,” per the DOE fact sheet. “Energy efficiency in equipment, processes, and operations is a fundamental part of this transition, and energy savings in facility retrofits can reach 50 percent. Facilities can expand this energy-efficient foundation with resource recovery measures to move closer to a sustainable wastewater infrastructure. DOE will help accelerate their movement towards this goal.”

Last month, DOE and the Water Environment Federation (WEF) agreed to jointly promote the DOE’s “Better Buildings” wastewater infrastructure accelerator, a multi-faceted effort to improve the sustainability of the nation’s wastewater treatment plants, facilities, and systems.

The two parties will encourage wastewater operations — which they refer to as “water resource recovery facilities” (WRRFs) — to embrace energy efficiency and will facilitate technical peer-exchange to share best practices and solutions. As part of the effort, DOE staff attended WEFTEC 2016 to promote the initiative.

“WEF is committed to providing a platform for water sector innovation, focusing on approaches and technologies that benefit utilities on the path to sustainable energy management,” WEF Executive Director Eileen O’Neill said in a statement. “To that end, we are excited to be collaborating with DOE to promote the benefits of the accelerator initiative.”

Among planned efforts are demonstrations of best practices and innovative tools for wastewater facilities, documented model plans for transitioning to sustainable infrastructure, the development of assessment and decision tools for selecting sustainable approaches, and the creation of recommendations for steps to take after participation in the accelerator. For each participant, the DOE will appoint a point of contact, provide assistance and training for energy reduction, facilitate technical peer exchange, and nationally recognize participating facilities when they achieve milestones.

To earn these benefits, participants must subscribe to a list of responsibilities. Among them, they must recruit at least one wastewater treatment operation that is willing to reduce energy consumption by 30 percent, participate in peer exchange and technical assistance forums, develop a baseline energy consumption within six months, apply low- or zero-cost conservation measures that result in at least 5 percent energy savings, and implement at least one measure described in the final plan within 12 to 18 months of the accelerator’s end. DOE will share the results from each partner with the U.S. EPA and industry associations.

The wastewater infrastructure accelerator was one of three Better Buildings initiatives announced by DOE last summer. It prescribes a three-year timeline to collaborate with state, regional, and local agencies that are pushing towards sustainable wastewater treatment infrastructure.

“The accelerator aims to catalyze the adoption of innovative and best-practice approaches in data management, technologies, and financing for infrastructure improvement,” according to the initiative’s website. “Partners will seek to improve the energy efficiency of their participating water resource recovery facilities by at least 30 percent and integrate at least one resource recovery measure.”

At least a dozen locales have become partners in the wastewater infrastructure accelerator, from the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department to the State of North Dakota. DOE highlights the City of Bemidji, MN as a particularly noteworthy participant.

With 14,000 residents in a 14-square-mile radius, the city consumed 85,180 MMBtu per year at an expense of $544,000 as of 2014. After initiating a citywide energy savings effort, which included upgrades to the city’s wastewater treatment plant, it expects energy savings of 17 percent and $105,000 annually.

It’s likely that DOE and WEF are imagining sustainable infrastructure and energy savings on a much greater scale, which may be why they have agreed to promote the accelerator further. As more communities hear about it and begin to try it for themselves, perhaps an answer for the nation’s energy woes will emerge.