Guest Column | November 28, 2016

Why Water Utilities Need An Energy Plan — And How Texas Is Making Progress

Kate Zerrenner

By Kate Zerrenner

When you prepare the Thanksgiving meal, do you ask each person to make a dish of their choosing, with no coordination for an overall cohesive meal? Probably not. Most likely, you plan, because you want everything to fit together.

Now imagine a water utility with different departments like water quality, finance, and administration. Most water utilities have high energy costs, so each department needs to manage and reduce its energy use — but typically there’s no plan to synchronize these efforts. With such a piecemeal approach, the utility may get overall energy savings, but it’s not maximizing the potential to meet ambitious efficiency goals or reduce power costs.

Enter the Energy Management Plan (EMP), a tool that sets up an organization-wide strategy for energy use. By creating a coordinated vision, an EMP establishes clear efficiency goals and gives departments the flexibility and direction for meeting them. That’s what this summer’s EDF Climate Corps fellow focused on at Tarrant Regional Water District (TRWD), which supplies water to 2 million users in the Fort Worth area. The TRWD fellow found opportunities where an EMP could improve the utility’s energy efficiency and management, leading to potential savings and less wasted water.

Roadmap to savings

Energy is a high cost for water utilities. It takes a lot of electricity to treat and distribute water, on top of fueling the offices and facilities. In many cities, water-related energy costs can be 30 to 40 percent of their total energy bill. With energy efficiency alone, those costs could be lowered by 15 to 30 percent — representing thousands of dollars. Installing low-water clean energy like solar or wind at a water utility could further bring down electricity costs. But these initiatives aren’t going to start themselves.

That’s where an EMP comes in. Basically serving as a road map, an EMP gets all departments working toward the same goal: reducing energy use and costs. It also helps prioritize the most cost-effective projects, such as targeting a high-energy pumping station for equipment upgrades or establishing leak-detection programs to reduce wasted water (and associated wasted energy).

Further, when water utilities identify high-energy-use pain points in their systems, it could potentially lead to partnerships with electric utilities, which might even help pay for major energy efficiency projects. As opposed to most water utilities, many electric utilities already have energy efficiency programs and funds dedicated to meeting those goals. But if an electric utility has been offering efficiency programs for years, it may have exhausted the low-hanging fruit and need to explore new options, such as efficiency through water conservation. By pairing up, both the water and electric utilities could maximize available efficiency and water conservation funds, helping each side reduce its energy use. California is a pioneer in this type of partnership.

Protecting our water supplies

Improving energy efficiency can not only lower costs and save energy, but save water too. That’s because many of the resources we currently use to make energy — like coal and natural gas — require a significant amount of water. The U.S., for instance, gets nearly 90 percent of its power from fossil fuel-fired and nuclear power, which accounts for nearly half of the country’s total water withdrawals. Therefore, cutting energy use indirectly cuts water use.

With a changing climate, many cities and areas will face increased water stress that could put additional pressure on electric systems. Plus, as the population grows, demand for water and electricity increases. Finding opportunities to protect water supplies – like through energy and water efficiency — will be critical.

Summer study: Texas

TRWD operates more than 150 water facilities, and most of the energy it uses is for moving water from East Texas. The utility is committed to lowering energy costs — currently there are about a dozen different programs aimed at doing so. Our EDF Climate Corps fellow’s main mission this summer was to develop a plan to streamline operations and consolidate TRWD’s energy achievements and goals into a cohesive energy management plan.

The fellow’s recommendations included:

  • Utility-wide benchmarking to establish an energy baseline for all relevant departments;
  • Creating an Energy Team to do the baseline work and ensure implementation of the energy plan across the utility, including regular plan updates and information sharing with the Board of Directors and all departments; and
  • Joining the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Plants Program to push the utility to aim for evolving energy efficiency standards and to allow them access to enhanced technical resources.

These recommendations can help TRWD improve overall operational and energy efficiency, and they exemplify what EDF Climate Corps does best: find ambitious yet achievable goals to reduce energy use and expand clean energy deployment. Future iterations of an EMP could include increased use of self-generation clean energy (e.g. solar panels) to further reduce TRWD’s energy demand.

In fact, this summer, another EDF Climate Corps’ fellow for San Antonio Water System (SAWS) — San Antonio’s municipally-owned water utility — not only identified energy-efficiency savings for the utility, but also evaluated the feasibility of onsite solar generation, of which SAWS is already a national leader.

No one wants a Thanksgiving meal of only side dishes. But that imbalance is what many water utilities currently are working with: They may have some sort of process to reduce energy use, but lack a comprehensive utility-wide energy agenda. Rolling small or piecemeal programs into a larger EMP could increase operational efficiency, lowering costs while saving water and energy. Texas is a great example of a state with water utilities ready to embrace the rewards of cohesive energy plans, and we look forward to seeing progress over the coming years.

From Environmental Defense Fund's Texas Clean Air Matters blog.