By Kevin Westerling,
Are you prepared to keep services up and running if the grid goes down?
Water and energy make quite the power couple. If they were people, they would put Brad and Angelina, Jay Z and Beyoncé, or Kim and Kanye to shame (though the latter seem to do it on their own).
We literally can’t live without them (the utilities, that is), and they can’t exist without each other. Even the world’s most advanced water treatment and delivery system is rendered obsolete without the energy to run it — a scary thought since the electric grid is vulnerable to numerous acts of Nature and man. While the grid has held up very well, climate change, population growth, aging infrastructure, and cyberterrorism all portend heightened risk for the future, or that things may get worse before they get better.
If and when disaster strikes, water and wastewater utilities will still be relied upon — more than ever, in fact — to provide the truly essential services that on good days are taken for granted. But these services can’t be provided if the lights aren’t on, so to speak. This is why the U.S. EPA created the Power Resilience Guide for Water and Wastewater Utilities, “to promote coordination and communication between water sector utilities and their electric utilities; and provide strategies to increase water utilities’ resilience to power loss.”
The EPA expounds upon seven key areas of preparation in the 31-page guide, which is narrowed here to a bite-sized overview. If you’re falling behind in any of these areas, refer to the full report for additional guidance and information on how to shore up resiliency.
Five steps are recommended:
- Make contacts with 24/7 availability at the electric utility, the local emergency management agency (EMA), and local Emergency Operations Center (EOC).
- Request/share key information. Ensure that the electric utility knows the physical location of all your key assets. Set up two-way radio communications between utilities, but also know the electric utility’s address as a final fail-safe.
- Get on the ‘priority power restoration’ list. Find out the agency or person managing the list, and enumerate your critical assets and their necessity.
- Train and conduct exercises to improve upon your emergency response plans (ERPs). EPA offers a Tabletop Exercise Tool for Water Systems and How to Develop a Multi-Year Training and Exercise (T&E) Plan as guidance.
- Communicate with the public via a communications manager/Public Information Officer (hire one if necessary) who can coordinate messages before, during, and after emergencies. Utilize all available channels, including local news and radio outlets, social media, the utility website, other agencies (e.g., fire department, local EMA, municipal office), and physical signs.
This two-step process will determine how much power is needed for critical functions (e.g., treatment processes, pump stations) to direct the commissioning and readiness of emergency generator systems.
- Conduct a power assessment at your utility with the assistance of a qualified electrician. The EPA created a factsheet to help: Is Your Water or Wastewater System Prepared? What You Need to Know about Generators; and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) offers free assessments for utilities through the 249th Engineer Battalion (Prime Power) by calling 800-243-3472. Re-assess your critical power needs as new systems are added or upgraded.
- Keep records of your assessment with your ERP for easy access, and input your generator information in the Emergency Power Facility Assessment Tool (EPFAT) — a USACE database that can be referenced by states and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to see where and what kind of generators are needed.
There are six questions to ask when choosing a generator, according the EPA report (which first recommends checking local, state, and federal regulations for generator specifications; federal regs for stationary internal combustion engines are found here).
- What size generator do I need?
- Tip: Portable/smaller generators are best for assets that don't require uninterrupted power; larger demands will necessitate stationary generators.
- Should I buy, rent, or borrow a generator?
- What type of fuel should I use to run my generator?
- Tip: Diesel generators are more common and offer greater selection, availability, and power range than gas-powered generators, but utilities with lower power requirements may benefit from the latter's portability. (The EPA provides pros and cons of fuel type in a handy chart on page 17 of their guide.)
- How will I connect a generator to my assets?
- Tip: Automatic or manual transfer switches, which allow users to toggle between commercial power and on-site generators, can be installed ahead of their call to action in order to save time.
- Where will I keep a generator?
- Tip: For starters, keep it three feet above the 100-year floodplain, on a stable surface, in a weatherproof enclosure, with four feet of space for ventilation. Add sound insulation for residential areas.
- How should I maintain a generator?
- Tip: Test for problems by running your generators at regular intervals under the required load; re-test after any maintenance/service is performed.
Fuel can be at a premium during an emergency, as suppliers may be down and transportation may be limited. Utilities must have fuel on-site, as well as the means to get it from one operation to the next. A proper plan should address the following, according to the EPA guide:
- How much fuel you need to operate each of your generators for one day
- How many days you want to run your generators without refueling
- Total on-site fuel capacity
- How you will re-fuel your generators, including those in remote locations
- Contracts with multiple fuel vendors
- Multiple options to move fuel during an emergency
The changeover to energy-efficient equipment is trending at water and wastewater utilities — a money-saver in normal times, but especially significant during a blackout. When equipment requires less power, generators can run longer while saving fuel. The EPA helps utilities down the path of energy efficiency with yet another guide, Ensuring A Sustainable Future: An Energy Management Guidebook for Wastewater and Water Utilities.
The most innovative and energy-invested utilities are employing different (sometimes multiple) methods of on-site power production, or distributed energy resources (DER), to reduce dependence on the electric grid. Examples of DER cited by the EPA include: microturbines/wind turbines, fuel cells, photovoltaic systems (solar panels), traditional internal combustion engines, and combined heat and power (CHP) systems.
The pinnacle of power resiliency is a self-sufficient microgrid system, which can operate independent of the grid and can be 'switched on' during an emergency. Microgrids serving critical public services and private businesses can even link together to form a larger microgrid — “‘islands’ of power during an outage” — the EPA notes. The agency’s On-Site Renewable Energy Generation guide is available here.
There are a variety of federal funding opportunities for utilities seeking to bolster resiliency (too many to name here) available through Federal Funding for Utilities – Water/Wastewater – in National Disasters (Fed FUNDS).
The Power Resilience Guide for Water and Wastewater Utilities concludes with a helpful table to understand funding options, with the disclaimer that it is “based on a broad interpretation of funding eligibility and policy. Individual utility projects will need evaluation on a case-by-case basis.”
The takeaway is that water and energy are virtually lost without each other, making them the ultimate power couple. From a utility perspective, and for the sake of communities served, we must keep the lights on and the water flowing — for better or for worse, in good times and in bad.