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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Energy Efficiency in Action

Energy Efficiency in Action
Small systems across the country are challenged to raise revenue in order to pay for the infrastructure and water treatment upgrades necessary to meet stricter water quality regulations. However, what if this revenue shortcoming could be made-up over time within a utility itself, sometimes without raising rates? Implementing an energy audit and then applying cost-efficient energy-saving strategies may be just the ticket.

An audit or self-assessment can help staff understand how their utility uses energy as well as the impact energy-intensive processes such as pumping and aeration has on overall usage. The EPA offers a range of tools available to help with this process, including an energy use assessment spreadsheet tool.

Once an audit is complete, utilities can develop a program to reduce energy costs. RCAP suggests focusing on these five areas: benchmarking, lighting systems, HVAC systems, pump efficiency and wastewater treatment. According to Ohio RCAP, potential energy-cost reductions can range from 6 to 62 percent, with an average of less than a 1-year simple payback for communities that are actively using energy audits and energy-reduction programs. 

It is always inspiring to learn about energy-saving strategies used by other systems. The wastewater plant in Copperas Cove, Texas, for example, installed new energy-efficient blowers, a modern aeration control scheme, finer screening at the headworks and a maintenance-friendly air diffusion system in order to cut their energy costs. Since their improvements, total average monthly energy costs at the plant have dropped by nearly 25%—from $22,000 per month to $16,000.

And this video shows how a utility in Evansville, IN was able to upgrade its wastewater plant without raising rates. In addition, the city became the first in the country to generate clean energy using FOG, or fats, oils and grease. 

A good way to brush up on how to operate efficient small utilities is by reviewing RCAPs planning and resource guide or the EPA's Strategies for Saving Energy at Public Water Systems or Florida Rural Water's Energy Reduction Techniques for Small and Medium Systems. In addition, this handbook from South Dakota DENR guides small systems step-by-step through the auditing process and explains how to develop an energy conservation program, identify and implement energy conservation measures (ECMs), and monitor the progress and success of the implementation program.

Featured Video: The EFC Water and Wastewater Rate Dashboards

The new year may be a time for considering budgets as well as operational challenges. But for small water utilities in particular, setting rates and managing budgets involves a complex set of social and financial issues that can feel overwhelming. Luckily, there are resources out there that can help. The Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina has developed a set of free, interactive Utility Financial Sustainability and Rates Dashboards. According to the project website, these dashboards are "designed to assist utility managers and local officials to compare and analyze water and wastewater rates against multiple characteristics, including utility finances, system characteristics, customer base socioeconomic conditions, geography, and history." To learn more about how the dashboard works, you can watch their nine-part video series, beginning with the video below:

Dashboards are currently available for twelve states. (For the most up-to-date versions of these dashboards, and to check if new states have been added, use the map at the project page.)

Even if your state is not on the list of current dashboards, it may still be interesting to check out what communities similar to yours are doing around the country. If you'd like more help working on rates and budgeting at your utility, the Rural Community Assistance Program provides technical assistance to small, rural utilities in need of both operational and administrative support. They also have a number of helpful guides aimed at supporting board members of small utilities, including this one dedicated specifically to rate-setting.

Utility finances can be difficult and complicated, but they don't have to be impossible. Find out which assistance providers near you can help you determine what's most realistic and sustainable for your utility.