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A week ago the new National Climate Assessment came out.  It basically says things we already expected – temperatures are warmer, there will be more droughts, less rainfall, less available water, more intense storms and sea level rise.  What the study did in its 800+ pages was outline examples of climate change phenomena that are already occurring including flooded streets in coastal areas, severe weather (Colorado, New Jersey), and changes in the arctic air currents that may be affecting northeastern and Midwestern winter storm frequency.  All things that those who have been around for a while and have been even minimally observant have already noticed for themselves.  What was also not surprising was the vitriol on the internet about how this assessment was a “fascist plot” perpetrated by a variety of people to impose some yet undetermined regulations on “patriotic Americans.”  And then Senator Marco Rubio comes out this week and says he does not believe it is possible for people to cause climate change.  No facts, just belief.  In Florida.  In Miami.  Wow…

Those who live in coastal areas, earn their living in agriculture, manage water utilities relying on water supplies, and drought planners know the truth.  Denying that the climate is changing simply ignores reality and delays the ability to respond to its impacts.  I realize that those impacts might be 20 or 40 or more years out, but planning is needed because we expect our infrastructure, factories, hoses and economies to last longer than that.  Science says change is occurring.  We can argue why and how fast, but the reality is that there is change and there are many people that will confront he need to adapt to the situation sooner than later (like us the Fort Lauderdale/Miami area!).  So why deny climate change?

As we noted in a prior blog, there are several reasons, but many involved business issues.  So follow the money. Let’s start with the Koch brothers.  The Koch brothers manage Koch Industries, the second largest privately owned company in the United States revenues exceeding $100 billion/year.  Many Americans have no idea who they are but they are billionaires who have made their living in the oil business – their father Fred C. Koch developed a new the method for the refining of heavy oil into gasoline.  They rely on oil to maintain their wealth and are politically active with conservative organizations including the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, all organizations the dismiss any impact of man on climate change.  Why?  Well one of the tenets of dealing with climate change is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions which means less reliance on fossil fuels – oil.  Whoops – that would be a problem for the Koch brothers because if they say “sure climate change is a problem,” well then that would mean that their entire business model and their wealth is a contributor to climate change, which means they are the “bad guys.”  Can’t have that.  So following the money tells you that we can’t make our money with oil and support climate change.

Let’s look at the other side.  Those acknowledging climate change are fully supportive of renewables, which in theory will help climate change by reducing carbon dioxide.  But the concept of renewables though is fraught with the problem that few of these technologies are ripe for wide-scale implementation.  For example natural gas vehicles or natural gas/hybrids are doable, but where do you buy the natural gas for the vehicle?  The technology and distribution networks is 10 or more years out at best and of course if you are in the oil business, why would you be interested in installing the natural gas fuel pumps?  So technology and need do not match when you follow the money.

How about the Keystone pipeline that would bring oil and gas from these remote areas to refineries in Texas and the Gulf of Mexico states.  You can guess the Koch brothers are in favor of the pipeline as they will benefit.  So are most oil and gas entities.  There are many environmentalists and other opposed to the pipeline because of impacts on water supplies (and other issues).  But the railroads are making money by hailing oil and gas from Canada and the Dakotas.  Guess which side the railroads are on?  The pipeline would take business away from the railroads.  Follow the money. 

Let’s look at our industry.  In the utility business, there is a lot of money with the telephone, power, cable and other utilities.  These private entities, although regulated, make huge sums of money for their investors.  You can follow that money. 

So who supports water and sewer utilities?  We do!  We supply over 85% of Americans.  But why do we have so much trouble getting funding when 85% of people would benefit.  One would think that given how many people we support, we have the money, but we are primarily not-for-profit entities, so we don’t make money for anyone.  You can’t follow that money because there is no money.  That tells us more about the difficulties we have in securing funding that anything.    

Fixing it is a little bigger challenge because our representatives and constituents do not understand the financial investment they have in our industry.  Their public health and economies are linked to water and sewer.  Our services make these other enterprises doable but there is no direct monetary connection to facilitate lobbying on our behalf.  I am not sure how to fix this, but we need a better marketing strategy for our services.  That’s one thing we know.

 

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Let’s start with the basic premise of this conversation – fracking is here to stay!  It doesn’t matter how many petitions you get in the mail, fracking is going to continue because the potential for gas production from fracking and the potential to fundamentally change our energy future, near or long-term, far outweighs the risk or economic and security disruptions from abandoning fracking efforts.  It looks like there is a lot of trapped gas, even if the well exponentially decay production in the first three years, although many well can be recovered by refracking.  It is an issue that residents and utilities need to accept.  The question is really how to assess the risks to water supplies from fracking and what is what can we do about it?

There are a number of immediate regulatory issues that should be pursued, none of which Vikram Rao (2010) suggests are truly deal killers.  They start with the disclosure of the fracking fluids, which for most legitimate companies that are fracking are relatively benign (and do not include diesel fuel).  Baseline and ongoing monitoring of formations above the extraction zones, and especially in water production zones is needed.  Research on water quality treatment solutions is needed because t may be impossible to completely eliminate escaping gas is needed.  Requirements to improve and verify well construction and cementing of formation is needed in all states (they are not now) and recycling frack water and brine should be pursued to avoid impacts on streams and wastewater plants, which limits the loss of water due to fracking operation and the potential for contamination of surface water bodies.  It will be important to push for these types of regulations in states like Ohio and West Virginia that need jobs and are likely places for fracking to occur, but they are also likely places where there will be political pushback that is afraid of discouraging job investments, but in reality this is unfounded.  The gas is there, so the fracking will follow. The question is will the states implement needed regulations to protect the public.

More interesting will be the ancillary issues associated with gas and wet gas.  A lot of by products come from wet gas, like polyethylene which can be used as stock for a host of plastics.  “Crakers” are chemical processing plants that are needed to separate the methane and other products.  Where will those facilities be located, is an issue.  Right now they are on the Gulf coast, which does not help the Midwest.  Do we really need to ship the gas to Louisiana for processing or do we locate facilities where the gas and byproducts are needed (in the Midwest)?  The Midwest is a prime candidate for cracker location, which will create both jobs as well as potential exports.  Also stripping the gas impurities like ethane, DEM and others needs to occur.

So what do utilities need to look at the potential impacts on their water supplies and monitor.  If the states will not make the fracking industry do it, we need to.  Finding a problem from fracking after the fact is not helpful.  We need to look at potential competition for water supplies, which is in part why recycling frack water brine is needed.  Eliminating highly salty brine from going to a treatment plant or a water supply are imperatives.  Sharing solutions to help treat some of these wastes may be useful – something we can help the industry with is treating water.

We also need to look at the processing plants.  We need to be looking at the impact of these facilities in light of water and sewer demands (and limitations). Wet gas facilities will require water as will plastics and chemical plants. Historically a lot of these facilities were in the Midwest and the research and skill sets may still be present.  How can these industries can be merged into current water/sewer scenarios without adverse impacts.  Communities will compete for these facilities, but good decisions may dictate that vying is not the best way to locate a plant. 

But there is another impact to utilities and that affects green technologies. The cost of gas is low and looks like it will remain low in the near future.  Low gas prices mean that renewable solutions like solar and wind will be less attractive, especially if federal subsidies disappear.  Wind is the largest addition to the power generation profile in the last 5 years, while many oil facilities changed to gas.  Cheap gas may frustrate efforts to create distributed power options at water and wastewater treatment plants throughout the country which can directly benefit utilities, not just where fracking occurs. So we need to be cognizant of these cost issues as well.  And you thought the fracking discussion might not affect you….

 


Back during the dark days of the late-1970s, when America was being held hostage by Middle East oil interests, the Department of Energy was created, ostensibly to free our economy from the dependence on foreign oil and all that trappings that go with it.  It was a noble goal – the American economy could grow without the risks posed by foreign governments.  Thirty five years later, could we finally be reaching that goal? 

Interesting the often criticized billions of energy company subsidies of the Bush era do not appear to be responsible for solving the issue.  Nor are the prior efforts to subsidize or otherwise encourage investments before.  The energy subsides since 2000 do not appear to be the reason, but the arctic wilderness did not need to be disturbed either.  The success had nothing to do with any of it, but instead a series of private risk takers to a gamble on an unproven technology, to make great strides – fracking.

Based on the success of the development of fracking for natural gas, we have made major improvements.  But it is not just fracking, as many power plants are or have been rehabilitated to convert away from oil and coal to cleaner burning natural gas, thereby developing the market for natural gas.  Local governments have been migrating their fleets to natural gas for years – natural gas can use the same engine with an $8000 conversion kit that allows automobiles to run on both.  The conversions have made the demand for natural gas greater, making the investments needed to frack, more profitable.  The US has significant reserves of natural gas, and fracking has made it easier to capture this resource.  The benefit of natural gas is that the demand for oil is down, creating a glut of oil on the market and a decrease in price (at least for now).

But the question that has been left unanswered is what the domino effect of natural gas is.  Certain advertisements will argue there is 200 years of natural gas available for the US so we don’t need to worry about energy.  Others will argue that only 10-15% of that supply is actually recoverable (it should be noted that this assumes current methods), which is a far shorter horizon.  But in either case, natural gas in the ground is not a renewable resource so the question must be asked – does the fracking boom interfere with investment in truly renewable resources? 

Since 2000, Washington has invested heavily in renewable resources – wind, solar and to an extent waves.  Some energy companies like NextEra have been investing heavily in wind and solar power (they are the biggest investors in renewable power in the US), so what of these truly renewable investments?  Will the rush to frack turn resources away from truly renewables?  Or will renewable continue to be a small fraction of energy demands for the near future?  The question remains unanswered for now.

The bigger question for utilities is whether fracking will divert money away from plans for renewable efforts like digester gas capture, solar cells and wind power at reservoirs and the like that utilities are using to help reduce power purchases.  Will it impact utility efforts to become self-sufficient energy consumers like East Bay MUD?  You see the economy has few favorites.  Government can create favorites, by subsidizing products that would otherwise be too expensive like PV panels. The benefit of subsides can be to reduce costs of emerging technologies that may never otherwise see widespread use.  Subsidizing renewables fit this mode.

Utilities should be concerned that the rush to frack pulls money away from their plans for renewable power.  As the feds look to reduce their contributions to water and wastewater infrastructure, public money to energy does not appear to be decreasing.  And unlike publically owned water and sewer systems, private investment in energy is increasingly available as a result of the potential profits that can be made.  The diversion of funds may decrease prospects for funding water and sewer utility options, especially if interest rates begin to rise.  The Federal Reserve Bank’s concern about rising interest rates was manifested earlier this year when interest rate increased, housing sales decreased immediately.

Of course the issue of fracking goes beyond the potential to disrupt monies for renewable energy.  There are questions about the practice of fracking include water quality impacts, causing earthquakes, land subsidence, etc., issue that have yet to be resolved.  Keep an eye out for a risk assessment that AWWA and others will be involved with to look at these risks.  


Local utilities are among the largest power users in their communities.  This is why power companies make agreements with utilities at reduced cost if the utilities will install backup power supplies.  The peak power generation capacity as well as backup capacity is at the local utilities and other large users.  Power companies can delegate this capital cost to large users without the investment concerns.  It works for both parties.  In addition, power companies spend effort to be more efficient with current power supplies, because recovering the costs for new, large plants is difficult, and in ways, cost prohibitive.  Hence small increment options are attractive, especially when they are within high demand areas (distributed power).  The use of localized wind, solar and on-site energy options like biogas are cost effective investments if sites can be found.  That is where the utilities come in.  Many utilities have sites.  Large water utilities may have large reservoirs and tank sites that might be conducive to wind or solar arrays.  Wind potential exists where there are thermal gradients or topography like mountains.  Plant sites with many buildings and impervious areas could also be candidates for solar arrays and mini-wind turbines.  Wastewater plants are gold mines for digester gas that is usually of high enough quantity to drive turbines directly.  So utilities offer potential to increase distributed power supplies, but many water/wastewater utilities lack the expertise to develop and maintain these new options, and the greatest benefit is really to power companies that may be willing to provide as much money in “rent” to the utilities as they can save.   Power entities obviously have the expertise and embedded experience to run distributed options optimally.  So why don’t we do this?

I would speculate several reasons.  First, the water/wastewater utilities have not really considered the option, and if they do there is the fear of having other folks on secure treatment sites.  That can be overcome.  The power entities have not really looked at this either.  The focus in the power industry is to move from oil-based fuels to natural gas to accumulate carbon credit futures, the potential for lower operating costs and better efficiency of current facilities to reduce the need for capital investments.  Power entities operate in a tight margin just like water/wastewater utilities do so saving where you can is a benefit.  There are limited dollars to invest on both sectors and political and/or public service commission issues to overcome to invest in distributed power options at water/wastewater facilities. 

But a longer-term view is needed.  While fossil fuels have worked for us for the last 100 years, the supply is finite.  We are finding that all that fracking might not give us 200 years, but more like 20-40 years of fuel.  We have not solved the vehicle fuel issue and fossil fuels appear to be the best solution for vehicles for the foreseeable future which means they will compete directly with power demands.  Natural gas can be used for vehicles fairly easily as evidenced by the many transit and local government fleets that have already converted to CNG. 

The long-term future demands a more sustainable green power solution.  We can get to full renewable power in the next 100 years, but the low hanging fruit need to be implemented early on so that the optimization of the equipment and figuring out the variables that impact efficiency can be better understood than they are now.  For example, Leadville, CO has a solar array, but the foot of snow that was on it last September didn’t allow it to work very well.  And solar arrays do use water to clean the panels.  Dirty panels are nowhere near as efficient as clean ones.  We need to understand these variables.

Area that are self sufficient with respect to power will benefit as the 21st century moves forward.  There are opportunities that have largely been ignored with respect to renewable power at water and wastewater facilities, and with wastewater plants there is a renewable fuel that is created constantly.  Wastewater plants are also perfect places to receive sludge, grease, septage, etc which increase the gas productions.  There are examples of this concept at work, but so far the effort is generally led by the wastewater utilities.  An example is East Bay Municipal Utility District (Oakland, CA) which produces 120% of its power needs at its wastewater plant, so sells the excess power back to the power company.  There are many large wastewater plants that use digester gas to create power on-site to heat digesters or operate equipment.  Others burn sludge in on-site incinerators to produce power.  But so far the utilities are only reducing their cost as opposed to increasing total renewable power supplies.  A project is needed to understand the dynamics further.  If you are interested, email me as I have several parties wishing to participate in such a venture. 


In June, President Obama made a speech about the increase in renewable power that the United States had created in the last 4 years, and announced goals to double this amount in the next four.  Virtually all of this power was solar and wind power.  Little mention was made of hydroelectric or onsite sources.  But the latter have been around much longer than the former sources and there may be options to increase their contributions under the right circumstances. 

 

Hydroelectric power has been in use in the US for over 100 years.  By the 1930s, 40 percent of the nation’s power came from hydroelectric dams, including some fantastic accomplishments of the time like the Hoover Dam.  Today we have over 100,000 dams in the US, most of which provide power.  Today hydroelectric is only 6 percent of our total.   The reluctance to continue with hydroelectric power involved fisheries, land acquisition costs and legal issues.  Some hydropower options are excellent.  Hurting fisheries (which disrupt local economies dependent on those fisheries) may not be, and therein lies part of the dilemma.

 

But water and wastewater utilities are actively looking for means to reduce power costs.  Depending on the utility, pumping water can account for 80-90 percent of total power consumption, especially with high service pumps on water systems that require high pressures.  More efficient pumps is one obvious answer, but of fairly limited use unless your pumps are really old.  Variable speed drives can increase efficiency, and the cost is dropping.  But note that with all that high pressure, how do utilities recapture the energy?  We often don’t and the question is whether there is a means to do so that can benefit up.  The first step is looking at plant hydraulics.  Is there a way to recapture energy in the form a pressure.  For example of reverse osmosis systems, we can install a turbine to recapture the pressure on the concentrate side.  They are not very efficient at present, but the potential is there.  On long gravity pipe runs for water supply, a means to recapture pressure might also be available. 

 

Of course on-site generation of power is a potential solution. Water and sewer utilities have land, and on the wastewater side, methane, so producing power is possible.  This solution, however, may not be embraced by power utilities due to the potential revenue reduction potential and loss of embedded reserve capacity at water and wastewater plants.  As the water facility takes on on-site generation, their load profile may shift significantly placing them in under a different rate structure. This may greatly reduce the benefit to the facility.  There are, however, approaches to permit win-win solutions. The goal is to put willing power and water utilities together to permit local generation that will benefit both power and water utility systems to encourage public – private partnerships.  A medium to large wastewater plant can generate at least a third of its power needs.  Some even more if they take in grease, oils and other substances that should not be put into the sewer system.  The potential there is significant.  EBMUD has a plant that is a net seller of power.  We should look for opportunities.  But don’t forget, water utilities can create hydropower without impacting fish populations. We just need to seek out the right opportunities.

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