Over Labor Day I took my wife to Las Vegas for her birthday to see the Cirque du Soliel show “O”, the Hoover dam and experience Vegas. She’d never been before. And it is a milestone birthday. We had a nice trip. The “O” show is all it is said to be. Another spectacular event! The hoover dam is an amazing 80 year old structure, designed to hold water for Arizona, California and Nevada, as well as make some power. Of course all three have long outgrown the reservoir. And the level drops each year to where it is 300 feet below its height less than 15 years back. A colossal feat of engineering that led to huge development in the arid west. The nearby Boulder City was created to build the dam. Las Vegas would not exist without its water. Water in the desert! The Anasazi’s would be amazed.
In an interesting twist of fate, USEPA caused a spill on the Animas River when a staffer accidently breached a dike holding back a solution of heavy metals at the Gold King mine because the misjudged the pressure behind the dike. Pressure? The spill flowed at 500 gpm (0.7 MGD), spilling yellow water spilled into the river. Downstream, the plume has travelled through parts of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, and will ultimately hit Lake Mead. Officials, residents, and farmers are outraged. People were told not to drink the water because the yellow water carried at least 200 times more arsenic and 3,500 times more lead than is considered safe for drinking. The conspiracy theorists are out. The pictures are otherworldly.
But they are all missing the point, and the problem. This is one of hundreds of “legacy disasters” waiting to happen. We are just surprised when they actually do. A legacy disaster is one that is predicated on events that have happened in the past, that can impact the future. In some cases the far past. There are two big ones that linger over communities all over the west and the southeast – mines and coal. Now don’t get me wrong, we have used coal and needed metals form mines. That’s ok. But the problem is no one has dealt with the effects of mining or coal ash for many years. And then people are upset. Why? We can expect these issues to happen.
One major problem is that both are often located adjacent to or uphill from rivers. That’s a disaster waiting to happen. The King Gold mine is just the latest. We had recent coal ash spills in Kingston, Tennessee (TVA, 2008) and the Dan River in 2014 (Duke Power). The Dan River spill was 30-40,000 tons. Kingston cleanup has exceeded a billion dollars. Coal ash is still stored at both places. Next to rivers. We had the federal government build ion exchange facilities in Leadville, CO and Idaho Springs, CO to deal with leaking water from mine tailings from the mountains. Examples are in the hundreds. The photos are of the two coal spills, mine tailings that have been sitting the ground for 140 years in Leadville and one of the stormwater ponds – water is red in Leadville, not yellow.
When the disaster does occur, the federal government ends up fixing it, as opposed those responsible who are usually long gone or suddenly bankrupt, so it is no surprise that EPA and other regulatory folks are often very skeptical of mining operations, especially when large amounts of water are involved. We can predict that a problem will happen, so expensive measures are often required to treat the waste and minimize the potential for damage from spills. That costs money, but creates jobs.
For those long gone or bankrupt problems, Congress passed the Superfund legislation 40 years ago to provide cleanup funds. But Congress deleted funding for the program in the early 2000s because they did not want to continue taxing the business community (mines, power plants, etc.). So EPA uses ARRA funds from 2009. And funding is down from historical levels, which makes some businesses and local communities happy. The spectre of Superfund often impacts potential developers and buyers who are concerned about impacts to future residents. We all remember Love Canals and Erin Brockovich. Lack of development is “bad.” They ignore the thousands or jobs and $31 billion in annual economic activity that cleanup creates, but it all about perception.
But squabbling about Superfund ignores the problem. We continue to stockpile coal ash near rivers and have legacy mine problems. Instead we should be asking different questions:
WHY are these sites permitted to store ash, tailings, and liquids near water bodies in the first place? EPA would not be inspecting them if the wastes were not there.
WHY aren’t the current operators of these mines and power plants required to treat and remove the wastes immediately like wastewater operators do? You cannot have millions of gallons of water, or tons of coal ash appear overnight on a site, which means these potential disasters are allowed to fester for long periods of time. Coal ash is years. Mine tailings… well, sometimes hundreds of years.
One resident on the news was reported to have said “Something should be done, something should be done to those who are responsible!” Let’s start with not storing materials on site, next to rivers. Let’s get the waste off site immediately and disposed of in a safe manner. Let’s recover the metals. Let’s start with Gold King mine. Or Duke Power. Or TVA.
As storm season arrives, I found an interesting figure which comes from Power magazine and shows all the power stations that are at risk from storms. That’s a lot of power. The question is how do we address this? Water and wastewater utilities are actively looking for means to reduce power costs. Pumping water can account for 80-90 percent of total power consumption, especially with high service pumps.
Water and wastewater power plants tend to have backup power. Or at least we hope they do. In Florida we created FLAWarn after the hurricanes in 2005. The concept was to put utilities together to allow them to share generators and other assets in case of emergency. Many utilities here have generators at pump stations, tanks and on trailers. The goal is to insure service can be provided regardless of the damage. And that did come in handy after Wilma in 2006. FLAWarn serves as a model for other states.
There are also renewable power which some utilities have invested in. Renewable power on plant sites is a means to address the potential grid interruptions. This solution, however, may not be embraced by power utilities due to the potential revenue reduction. As the water facility takes on on-site generation, the utility load profile may shift significantly placing them in under a different rate structure which may greatly reduce the benefit to the utility. One problem.
Also there are some at work to derail green power solutions, trying to reduce the attractiveness and subsidies on renewable power. Interesting that many power providers are not in that group because all power in the US is subsidized – oil, gas and renewables. The oil and gas sector is much larger and while many renewable power solutions are used by large power entities. In some states, the states have taken action to encourage these investments because of the potential benefits to the population. Local entities have gotten involved also. It just makes sense if you are in the right region and the price/risk ratio is right. A number of water and sewer utilities have pursued this option successfully. That will help as well during outages.
Now if we can keep the trees from being planted above the pipelines ….
So what does this mean for water and sewer utilities. First, we’d love to stay out of the fray. Water and sewer utilities recognize that they are the “peak” power supply for electric utilities. The means to expand power supplies is made difficult by the rules for capital recovery for power utilities that penalizes peak and redundant power supply construction. It must be used and useful to qualify for a return. Hence NextEra builds inexpensive, small increment renewable wind systems to be made whole and encourages residents to reduce demands so they do not need to build more large scale capacity. That works as long as access to renewables or increases in efficiency are available. The use of federal subsidies encourages the used of new technology but without the subsidies, expect the construction to slow.
The European Union is looking to phase out renewable power subsidies by 2017, which may have fairly significant consequences for the European renewable market. The Koch brothers and the Tea Party operatives they fund through many organizations like the Institute for Energy Research, Americans for Prosperity and the Heritage Foundation, are fighting federal tax credits for wind, while backing tax credits for oil and gas. Why do the Koch brothers keep showing up? Because as we noted in a prior blog – they stand to lose profits if the US depends less on oil and gas IT si a problem with big money interests using that money for self preservation as opposed to progression of technology and ideas.
Think what would have happened 100 years ago if big money was allowed to control progress. And I have just the perfect scenario pitting two sides of my family. My mother’s great uncle made Concord coaches. As long as horse drawn carriages and coaches were the primary transportation options, they made money. OF course many cities and towns found that they spend much of their tax money cleaning up after the horses, one of the all-time yuckiest jobs. Tons of horse poop was cleaned up nightly on the streets on many cities. Images are available on line. Of course there was also the stench, disease, vectors, etc associated with all that poop.
Then came Henry Ford. My Dad’s side of the family were Detroiters. They got jobs in the Ford factories, and made money from services to autoworkers as well. The cities loved having cars – less poop. In fact Henry’s cars worked so well, that very quickly cities didn’t have to pick up poop. And the stench and disease decreased. Of course back then, my mothers’ family did not have the same means to buy influence to prevent Henry Ford from producing cars. My uncle went broke, but America and my father’s family in Detroit, benefitted greatly as a result of the new technology. I think we all benefitted from the automobile. Thankfully the coachmakers didn’t have money.
Using politics and influence to resist new technology seems unAmerican. Using subsidies to encourage is seems far more beneficial to society as long as those subsidies actually benefit society. Subsidies have long been a means for governments to alter consumer and corporate behavior and encourage new technologies. Subsidies for recycling steel, aluminum, glass, paper and other materials remained in place until the technology was cost effective to compete with new materials. Now recovered steel is cheaper than new steel materials. The subsidies had their effect. The same is true with aluminum and glass. Subsidies in the form of grants encouraged water and sewer utilities to upgrade treatment and install pipes to serve new customers. Now those are low interest loans because most of the cost effective connections have been made. It benefitted society.
Subsides have been used for years in the US and Europe to encourage renewable power use. The result is a reduction in renewable costs as more people invested in the technology. Greater supply means lower costs (economy of scale, and, theory of economic supply and demand), and subsides are designed to reduce purchase prices sooner than the market might otherwise. Otherwise most of these industries never get off the ground because they cannot get to cost effective production levels. Stay tuned.
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.