Resilient Utilities: It’s not just about technology

People sometimes ask me how we select our meeting topics. There isn’t any particular formula to how we do our work, but I like to tell people that we try to answer for ourselves: What is the question that isn’t being asked, but needs to be asked? In my head I have an image of a bead of water building up on a hard-packed sandy beach, but still held together by surface tension among the water molecules. If you scratch a little runway along one edge of the pooled water, it will begin to run out in that direction. In creating our meetings, we look to see where tension is building up and then use our meeting to funnel the pent-up energy in a productive manner. We try to stay out in front, ahead of the moving edge.

Last April we hosted a meeting aimed at transforming the water utility sector to ensure that all aspects of water services (supply, sewage and storm) were being planned, built and managed in a way that makes sense for the future ahead of us. That means a lot of things: able to withstand and recover from storm events, not exacerbating climate change by dependence on fossil fuels, able to adapt to changing circumstances, not wreaking havoc with the natural water cycle, etc. With that meeting fresh in my mind, I subsequently participated in a series of water-energy nexus meetings hosted by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Science Foundation. Somewhere in the blend of all of those meetings, and sidebar discussions with many of the leading thinkers in attendance, it became very clear to me that there was a major gulf between the energy world and the water world. There was a lot of work being done in each sector trying to address the water-energy nexus, but the two sectors seemed to be in parallel play.

Working with that hunch, my colleagues at the Meridian Institute and I began talking to people to ask the naïve question: Would it be useful to bring water utilities and electric utilities together to discuss how they could help each other? This is what I call the “get smart” phase of our work. We spent about a month reading background materials, interviewing experts and listening in on other people’s meetings trying to figure out how to position a meeting that could be useful to the field. Lots of people have lots of meetings, and we have no intention to duplicate those. Instead, we try to figure out if there is an itch that we can scratch for them.

In this particular case, when we started calling utility leaders, we received an unequivocal signal that we were on the right track. Many wastewater utilities are working hard to bring down their energy use, recover renewable energy from the sewage they treat, and shift their remaining energy demands to avoid peak rates. In 2012, The Water Environment Federation released The Energy Roadmap, followed by a more detailed book of the same title, and wastewater utilities around the country are striving to become energy neutral. Some, such as East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland, Calif., or Stevens Point, Wisconsin’s utility are even tipping into become a net exporter of energy. But many of these same utilities are frustrated with how difficult it is for them to effectively engage with their power utility or the operator of their electricity grid. In the case of energy utilities, the concern was more about how to secure the necessary water supplies that they need. What we didn’t hear, but was undoubtedly on some people’s minds, is the mutual concern that each side of the house has about responding to disruptive technology. While water and energy conservation, and shifting to renewable sources, is good for the planet as a whole, it can be very scary for a utility navigating through these changes.

We followed our hunch and brought together 22 leaders from the water and energy fields to try to work through some of these issues. Many of the participants had their own private “aha” moments, or met someone who could help them solve a thorny problem that is getting in their way. But we hope that the overall output from the meeting will have broader implications. One of the interesting suggestions (p. 8 in the report) was for water utilities to use their collective consumer power to demand clean, renewable power sources. Not only would this reduce demand on water resources, it would mitigate the climate change that is creating so many challenges for water utilities through increased flooding and pollution, longer drought periods, etc. Many other specific, common-sense suggestions came up in the course of the meeting. In fact, it was clear to me and to most of the others participating that the technology for making the needed changes is at our fingertips. It’s the people and the institutions that need to change.

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