When the time comes, will you be ready?
Timing is everything. It’s a painful adage sometimes, used to point out the slim divide between success and failure. Fate notwithstanding, we are often presented with opportunities to “seize the day” and help dictate future outcomes. For utilities, the opportunity may come in a short window of time, with repercussions that affect operations, consumers, and the environment for decades — or the amount of time a large equipment purchase stays in operation.
Most treatment systems are financed over a projected lifespan of about 20 years. As the useful life of a piece of equipment comes to a close, an important decision-making process begins: Replace the model with a very similar technology, essentially stagnating progress for 20 more years, or make the leap to a new technology. While the latter may hold the promise of across-the-board improved performance, there is no guarantee — and thus an understandable wariness develops. George Hawkins, CEO and general manager of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water), explains: “When you have very tight budgets, it’s natural to go with what you know, or be very careful and certain that something new is going to work before you spend the money. You have to be right, because you don’t have extra money to retool if it doesn’t work.”
That said, Hawkins and DC Water are strident trailblazers in the water/wastewater industry. When the window of opportunity opens, DC Water seizes the day and opts for leading-edge solutions — but not without due diligence. Hawkins recently shared with me three keys for implementing new ideas and technologies, based on his considerable experience in doing so.
A Strong Business Case
DC Water recently invested $470 million in discretionary funds to employ Cambi’s thermal hydrolysis process (THP) for sludge treatment at its 370-MGD Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Facility — an expensive proposition even for a utility with an annual operating and capital budget of nearly $1 billion. But the business case became evident when numbers were crunched; THP projects are both cheaper and more efficient than traditional digestion and biosolids removal over the (literal) long haul.
Hawkins described 1,200 wet tons of sludge, or Class B biosolids — “about 60 very large tanker trucks a day” — that needed to be hauled away from Blue Plains. “Each one of those truck drivers and trucking companies has to be paid,” he noted. “There’s air pollution being generated; there are all sorts of costs going into that system. And our other worry was that Class B biosolids could always be regulated more tightly, to make it more expensive to handle them.”
Moreover, the current system had reached its useful end and would require up to $150 million just to maintain the status quo. Instead, DC Water’s new THP installation is generating Class A biosolids, which the utility can sell as fertilizer. Hawkins added, “Truck traffic is cut in half ... and we’re generating up to 9 MW of net power that we can use at our facility rather than buying power off the grid. [THP] is absolutely saving funds, it’s reducing liability, and there are all sorts of opportunities we haven’t even realized yet.”
Though financial projections were favorable during the vetting process, questions around the technology’s efficacy remained because Blue Plains would be the “first adopter” in North America. However, Hawkins and staff conducted “many, many years of research,” including numerous field tests and the analysis of an estimated 40 peer-reviewed papers to prove that, yes, it would (and does) work. In operation since October 2015, “It is functioning better than anticipated,” Hawkins proudly reported.
DC Water has what Hawkins described as “a system and a scheme for how we identify and evaluate innovative ideas,” including a renowned Innovations Chief (Dr. Sudhir Murthy) and a robust R&D program. While that’s a luxury not available to all utilities, Hawkins emphasized that “an innovative idea can come to anybody, anywhere.”
Innovation is obviously ingrained and ongoing at DC Water, but the notion of anybody, anywhere should be universal among utilities and their personnel. A single idea, well-timed and thoroughly researched, can change the fate of many. Start by keeping abreast of what’s available, be mindful of when new systems will be needed (timing being everything), and seize the day when the opportunity arises.