In conjunction with exploring the financing and funding options to follow, utilities should also examine system operations, finding any additional efficiencies and other cost savings that do not affect (or may even improve) function.
Long-Term Planning Frameworks
Even as climate change and migration introduce uncertainty into future projections, utilities typically plan five to ten years in advance for capital projects, asset management, and more, and should include long-term conservation and other efficiency and sustainability goals in these plans. These planning tools help utilities prioritize the limited funds that they do have by investing in more efficient infrastructure. There are three primary frameworks that utilities should use in conjunction to spread capital investments over time, prioritize spending, and possibly find cost-saving efficiencies:
- Asset Management Plans (AMP) – AMPs track and assess the current status of utility assets, enabling managers to plan for the most needed repair, replacement, or upgrades. As the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) describes, “a high-performing asset management program includes detailed asset inventories, operation and maintenance tasks, and long-range financial planning.”
- Capital Improvement Plans (CIP) – Adopting a robust capital improvement planning approach helps utilities schedule out needed capital projects over the span of one to two decades. Proactive planning for capital costs – a major portion of each utility’s costs – is essential because ratepayers will have to front any financing gaps (after using federal or other sources) of each capital project’s cost. CIPs include assessments for right-sizing (adjusting system size to fit demand), potential efficiencies from regionalizing systems, and other ways to estimate future needs.
- Effective Utility Management (EUM) – EUM ties together fundamentals of sound, financially and environmentally and environmentally sustainable utility management principles to enable planning with an understanding of both current performance and future outlook. The core tenets of EUM include: leadership; strategic business planning; knowledge management; measurement; and continual improvement management.
Reducing Leaks and Infiltration/Inflow
Reducing Leaks and Infiltration/Inflow Currently, a significant amount of drinking water is lost due to leaks, and wastewater systems are subject to inflow and infiltration (I/I), which reduces revenue or raises costs. An estimated 14 to 18 percent of municipal drinking water is lost through leaks, inaccuracies in tracking, and unauthorized use. The same metric has not been estimated nationally for I/I, but its effects are significant for wastewater systems.
Several approaches to leak detection, from low to high tech, can assist drinking water utilities in reducing non-revenue water loss and wastewater utilities in addressing infiltration of fresh water into sewer laterals. One tool for drinking water utilities is a thorough water audit, which identifies leaks, unauthorized consumption, or authorized non-revenue use like firefighting by using the methodology developed by the International Water Association and the American Water Works Association.
Utility or city staff can also integrate GIS mapping and any records about various factors affecting pipe integrity to map, then proactively repair, areas of the water system most likely to break. The Innovation Team in Syracuse, NY worked with the Data Science for Social Good fellowship based at the University of Chicago to develop a predictive modeling system of the City’s drinking water pipes that included data about pipe material and age, soil type, and other factors that weaken pipes. Using this system, crews were able to prioritize repairs on the water mains identified as most likely to break.
Utilities can require crews to test the integrity of nearby pipes as a routine step in any project. This approach offers a growing number of higher-tech tools, some of which install sensors or use sound waves to locate leaking pipes. Upgrading water meters to report usage in real time, or close to it, can also help identify leaks both on the customer’s side of the meter and between meters in the system.
Improving Energy Efficiency for Operations
Adopting energy efficient technologies for water system operations is an instrumental first step in reducing a city’s total carbon emissions (water and wastewater systems usually consume 30-40 percent of a city’s total energy use) and saves money long-term. Up to 80 percent of a typical drinking water utility’s processing or distribution costs and 25-40 percent of a wastewater utility budget is applied toward energy use, so energy efficiency and onsite energy generation in water systems can reduce costs for utilities.
The EPA has released a report called “Energy Efficiency in Water and Wastewater Facilities” which outlines many steps that cities and utilities can take to increase the efficiency of their water and wastewater infrastructure. Cities and utilities can install efficient pumping systems, use downhill energy capture (a form of hydropower that captures the energy created when water moves downhill through motors), and strategic water storage to avoid pumping at peak times. Water treatment facilities can also ensure that their Supervisory Control and Data Capture (SCADA) systems are up to date, as this is a foundational water monitoring system that gives utilities a more accurate read on how and where water is used. One of the simplest steps water facilities can take to improve their efficiency is replacing lights and lighting systems with LEDs on timers to reduce facility energy consumption.
There are further efficiency opportunities within wastewater treatment. Sheboygan, WI upgraded its aging wastewater treatment infrastructure to invest in a micro-turbine system that burns biogas produced by the plant’s digesters, resulting in 20 percent less energy use compared to pre-installation baselines. This saves the utility up to $63,000 annually, and has made the plant 70 to 90 percent self-sufficient in energy production. DC Water’s Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant – the largest of its type worldwide – uses biodigesters to generate enough electricity from thermal hydrolysis to cut the plant’s energy consumption by a third.
Land-based solutions can also generate efficiencies by reducing the treatment load in both water and wastewater systems. Source water protection, which often means buying conservation easements along waterways upstream of a city, can reduce the treatment burden at drinking water plants. New York, NY acquires “hydrologically sensitive” land through outright purchase or conservation easements, enabling the city to preserve natural areas undeveloped in order to protect water quality by supporting plants along the banks or wetlands that filter out contaminants and prevent erosion.
At the other end of the system, green infrastructure added to service areas with combined sewer systems can reduce the volume of stormwater that ends up in the wastewater system. This can provide its own benefits like aesthetic and air quality improvements,20 have positive health impacts, and help avoid costly fees for violating consent decrees or other regulatory mechanisms. A study of green infrastructure in Lancaster, PA projects “a value of more than $120 million in avoided gray infrastructure capital costs and nearly $5 million in annual benefits beginning after the 25-year implementation period.”
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