November 2006, Vol. 18, No.11

Sustainability Revisited


Back in 1996, the President’s Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD) released a report on sustainability in the United States. Titled Sustainable America: A New Consensus for Prosperity, Opportunity, and a Healthy Environment for the Future, the report included a list of 140 recommended actions to help ensure the long-term health of our planet — from restoring brownfield sites to addressing urban sprawl. While the list had great promise, most of these goals have not been met.

 “Of all the wished-for accomplishments of that council, very little of it materialized,” said Ray Anderson, president of Interface, a commercial interiors company offering floor coverings and fabrics, and co-chairman of the PCSD during its final 3 years. “If you read that document today, you’d think, ‘I’d sign a contract if this could be the America that we have.’ It describes a sustainable America.”

A decade later, Anderson, along with Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute (Washington, D.C.), and Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation (Reston, Va.), is chairing a series of four summits on sustainability issues plaguing the United States.

The National Leadership Summits for a Sustainable America are sponsored by the National Energy Center for Sustainable Communities (San Diego) and the Johnson Foundation (Racine, Wis.). The summits bring together leaders from industry, academia, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to discuss topics ranging from climate change to developing sustainable business practices.

Building a Sustainable World
“Sustainability … has to do with development practices and resources that are sustainable over a long period of time — basically not using finite resources or practices that cause degradation or damage that decreases their life span,” said Bill Becker, summit organizer. Becker is the senior adviser to the Global Energy Center for Community Sustainability (Des Plaines, Ill.) and the Colorado Energy Research Institute (Golden, Colo.), and founder of the Department of Energy’s Center of Excellence for Sustainable Development.

According to Becker, today’s most dire sustainability issues include the United States’ dependence on finite fuels — particularly imported oil — and the overarching issue of climate change.

“Our production of greenhouse gases is producing a climate that, while it might not end life on Earth, it will certainly change life as we know it by changing the climate as we know it,” Becker said.

In order to produce results, Becker said, communities must learn to make changes institutionally and within the infrastructure, including creating sustainable water supplies and improving water quality. Therefore, in addition to shaping federal policy, the summits focus on ways to encourage action at the grassroots level. 

Anderson, who was asked to consider “a sort of reprise” of the PCSD by Becker and Lash, said the summits are comprised of 40 experts, including a 10-member Continuity Team that will be responsible for sharing information from one summit to the next.

Becker said water is a “common denominator” in the first three summits. 

“Typically 30% of a community’s energy — the municipal government’s energy use — comes from moving and treating water, so how we do that is a big energy issue,” Becker said. 

The first summit, “Energy and Climate Change,” was held June 5–7. This summit, Becker said, was “kind of a chain reaction of enthusiasm and a regeneration of excitement, because people found out how many others in how many other places were working on these things, and that was inspirational.”

Becker said the Dec. 4–6 “Natural Resources and Environment” summit will address a number of water challenges, including drought, increasingly severe storms, and combined sewers.

The third summit, “Sustainable Communities,” will be held June 4–7, 2007. “There’s an obvious interface there [with water],” Becker said, “the tension in water supply between agriculture and cities, how you manage urban watersheds, how you manage stormwater runoff by creating more permeable surfaces and through less paving.”

The fourth and final summit, “Building an Action Plan,” Oct. 1–4, 2007, will be a strategy session on how to implement the actions and ideas of the first three summits. 

The Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) is a sponsor of the summits. Pat Sinicropi, legislative counsel for WEF, said WEF recognizes that climate change is an issue for water professionals. If we don’t implement sustainable practices, weather patterns will continue to change with dire outcomes, she said.

For instance, climate change “will result in more unpredictable and more wet weather events, such as flooding, high rains, hurricanes, and they’ll be more intense,” Sinicropi said. “That means there will be more water coming into our systems impacting water managers. You can’t design systems to take in unpredictable, high-precipitation events.” She added that more devastating hurricanes will have a severe impact on the infrastructure of coastal communities. 

At the same time, “drought will become more widespread and severe,” she said, “and this means water managers will have less water resources to provide communities, so they’ll have to conserve more and work more efficiently.”
Green Business
Anderson’s company has adopted sustainable business practices. He emphasized that sustainability means more than just being “environmentally friendly” — a message to be conveyed at the summit.

“Sustainability, for us, is to run our petrol-intensive company in such a way as to take not another fresh drop of oil from the Earth — to take nothing from the Earth that is not naturally and rapidly renewable, and to do no harm to the biosphere, and to do all of this in a fair and equitable manner for all of our stakeholders,” Anderson said.

About 12 years ago, Interface customers — particularly interior designers and architects — began asking the company what it was doing for the environment. “We had no answers,” Anderson said. At that time, Anderson read Paul Hawkins’ The Ecology of Commerce, from which he learned that not only were the Earth’s living systems in decline, but also that big industry — i.e., companies such as his — was the main culprit. 

Anderson said he realized “the only real way out of this mess is for business and industry to take the lead” on implementing a business plan based on sustainability. “I took it seriously and challenged my company to become a sustainable company,” he said.

But does green business work? How does a company base its work ethic and practice on sustainability without falling behind in profits?

“Our costs are down, not up,” Anderson said frankly. He added that a “myth” exists about going green, and that is “the false choice between environment and economy.”
 By taking inspiration from nature, product designers for Interface are producing goods that are “the best they’ve ever been.” 

And the Interface staff is inspired.

“Our people are motivated to an amazing degree,” Anderson said. “They are galvanized around this shared, higher purpose. If you walk the factory floor and ask the question, ‘What do you do? Why do you come to work?’ Instead of saying ‘Well, I’m running this machine,’ they probably would say, ‘I’m doing it to save the Earth for my grandchildren.’ ”

Better products and a dedicated staff are beneficial to the company’s bottom line. Anderson said customers are faithful to Interface because of its good business practices.

“The good will of the marketplace is mind-blowing,” he said. “The same people who were asking us 12 years ago what we were doing for the environment are supporting the company today and embracing the company for what we are trying to do.”

Taking It to the Streets
The summits are designed to connect groups that usually operate independently from one another, even though they may work toward the same goals. The idea is not only to have a diverse group of participants, Becker said, but to get the recommended actions to local governments and individuals.
 According to Becker, the last time a diverse group of people discussed sustainability issues over a reasonably sustained period of time was during the Clinton administration. 

“Since then there have been a lot of organizations, a lot of individuals, who have engaged in various parts of the sustainability picture … but they haven’t often talked to one another, certainly not cross-sectorally.”

It is that cross-section, both in topic and in participants, that summit organizers hope to achieve. Becker said in order for sustainability to become a reality, the nation must have “the government people talking to the investment people, talking to the philanthropies, talking to the NGOs, talking to the academics and science community, and so on down the line.”

The proposed action items from each summit will be considered in October 2007 as part of a 5-year action plan. Some of those actions, Becker said, will directly engage the public, while others will be suited for the financial and academic communities. Those actions meant for members of Congress will “translate into public policy, and … will trickle down in one way or another to the public at large,” he said.

“I think the public is the ultimate customer. Men, women, and children are the ultimate beneficiaries of sustainability, or the ultimate victims of not [implementing sustainable practices],” Becker said.
 Actions directly involving the public may include education programs for youth or a climate action guidebook for mayors, he said.

Meghan H. Oliver, WE&T

For more information on the National Leadership Summits for a Sustainable America, go to



At What Cost, Energy?

As prices climb, utilities rethink processes, emphasize conservation

When it comes to rising energy costs, Jack Herring is — at least for the time-being — feeling better than most people in his position.

It’s not that there isn’t ample reason for concern. Between 2003 and 2005, fuel oil prices nationwide rose 50%, and coal went up 20%. Since 1999, natural gas has shot up a whopping 300%. That’s all according to a July report by the Edison Electric Institute (Washington, D.C.).

It’s just that in Hannibal, Mo., where Herring serves as general manager of the Board of Public Works, wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) operations have yet to feel the impact of rate increases. In fact, when the board’s current 11-year wholesale electricity contract expires in January 2009, the city of 17,600 will have been paying less for electrical power than it did 10 years earlier.

“We were lucky,” explained Herring. “When we negotiated our electricity contract in 1998, deregulation was the key word. We were able to sign an 11-year contract and implement a rate reduction.”

While there are other “Hannibals” around the country — cities that locked into long-term energy contracts when the time and the price were right — they are the exception, not the rule, according to Larry Jentgen, vice president of EMA Inc. (St. Paul, Minn.). And their days are numbered.

Jentgen said his firm, which provides automation and management consulting services for water and wastewater utilities, is seeing more utilities grappling with energy-related issues. Given the dramatic price increases of recent years — and doubts that prices will again return to the lower levels of yesteryear — many have begun to change the way they look at energy.

A Fresh Look at Energy Conservation
 “A way many utilities get started is by looking closely at the processes that consume a lot of energy in their daily operations,” Jentgen said, “and then asking some basic questions: Do they need to run continuously? Are they running at full capacity?”

The Wastewater Treatment Division of Fairfax County, Va. has in recent years cut energy costs at the Norman M. Cole Pollution Control Plant by roughly 10% by addressing such questions, according to Mike McGrath, director of operations at the plant.

“If we can reduce the number of tanks or pumps we have in service at any given time and run closer to capacity, we are more energy efficient,” he said. “By paying close attention to these and other details, we’ve reduced both our energy consumption and cost.”

McGrath said the Fairfax utility, which serves about 500,000 customers, has taken other proactive steps. It recently replaced some electric-powered mixers with solar-powered versions on a trial basis, installed energy-efficient fixtures, and switched some pump stations to variable-frequency drives, allowing them to more finely regulate the power needed for pumping. Supervisory control and data acquisition controls and other upgrades installed a few years back also give the utility more control over energy consumption.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Sewer District, which serves about 430,000 customers in St. Louis and its county, has also been proactive in implementing energy-saving measures.

“We run a tight program,” said David St. Pierre, the district’s director of operations. Among other things, the district has invested in thickening and dewatering equipment to remove as much water from its processes as possible, which improves energy efficiency. Its Missouri River plant saves on some natural gas costs by running a digester off methane gas produced at the plant.

“We’re at a point where it’s getting harder to identify energy-saving opportunities,” St. Pierre said.

Still, rising energy costs represent the single greatest impact on the district’s operating budget. The district’s largest plant, which runs on natural gas, saw a 40% increase in its natural gas budget for 2006, according to St. Pierre. “So we’re looking at other ways to cut the budget.”

Developing New Priorities 
Other utilities, such as the Alexandria (Va.) Sanitation Authority, are now only beginning to recognize the full scope of conservation and cost-saving opportunities available to them.

“We knew our energy costs were going up, but we couldn’t identify the source,” according to Paul Carbary, director of Green Fields for the authority, which processes approximately 136,000 m3/d (36 mgd) of wastewater for its 350,000 customers.

This past spring, the authority formed an Energy Management Team to track electricity and natural gas costs; set goals for energy reduction; and define capital projects, technology, and operating investments to minimize consumption and cost.

“Since forming the team we’ve already discovered, for example, that our process air compressors are consuming about 30% of our WWTP’s electricity,” said Carbary. “A closer look showed that our compressors were oversized.” The authority is now looking into purchasing a blower more appropriate to its needs, he said.

Not every energy conservation idea, of course, turns out to be economically feasible.

Such was the case at the Albany (Ore.) Wastewater Treatment Plant following an energy audit 5 years ago. 

“The audit came back with two major recommendations that represented an annual savings of approximately $33,000,” noted Mike Wolski, operations manager and assistant public works director in Albany.

The payback on the recommendations, which had to do with rebuilding an aeration basin and upgrading a blower building, was 5.2 years. An alternate recommendation could have saved the city approximately $36,000 per year, but had a payback of 8.7 years, according to Wolski.

The utility ultimately elected to implement neither recommendation because it had plans for a major WWTP upgrade, which would begin construction before either payback period ended.

Similarly, Alexandria’s Energy Management Team initially had hoped it might achieve cost savings by running equipment at off-peak hours, said Carbary.  

“After crunching our data, however, we learned that our peak usage occurs during high-flow events, rather than at any one set time of day,” he said. “If we operate our equipment at off-peak hours, it’s really more of a courtesy to the electric company than an economic benefit to us.”

That isn’t to say that electric companies and other energy providers don’t sometimes offer more advantageous rates to users who demonstrate energy conservation or agree to other stipulations.

For the past several years, for example, Fairfax County’s Wastewater Treatment Division has received lower natural gas rates in exchange for allowing its supplier to temporarily interrupt its supply, according to McGrath.

“Our plant uses a combination of landfill gas from a trash-to-energy facility and natural gas,” explained McGrath. “If our natural gas supplier needs to turn off our supply, we can use landfill gas and diesel as backup. The cost savings are worth it.” In the past 2 years, Fairfax County has had its supply interrupted only 6 or 7 days, reported McGrath.
Looking Ahead
Given the spike in energy costs, some energy-saving projects that didn’t pass economic muster just a few years ago are now sometimes getting a second look.

“The accelerating cost of electrical power is making many wastewater utilities re-evaluate their business cases for building cogeneration and other energy-saving projects,” said Jentgen.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Sewer District, for one, has begun investigating the possibility of using biodiesel plants as way of creating energy from biosolids. “This technology is still in its infancy and a bit of risk,” said St. Pierre. “But stay tuned. It also has the potential to reduce our operating costs by millions of dollars a year.” 

The Wastewater Treatment Division of Fairfax County is also making future plans for securing its electric power from a trash-to-energy facility at a nearby landfill. “Because electricity in Virginia is still regulated, our prices are relatively stable right now,” said McGrath. “But 5 years down the road, it’s going to jump. So we’re trying to be ready by working now on a design to draw a feeder from that trash-to-energy facility to our wastewater treatment plant.”

Perhaps the biggest change taking place at WWTPs today is a change in attitude.

“Three or 4 years ago,” said Carbary, “energy didn’t get as much attention when we were selecting a process. Now it’s an issue that we are considering as we look at future upgrades.”

Like many utilities, Alexandria Sanitation Authority is now focused on “smart designs,” according to Carbary. “We want solutions that conserve energy from the start.”

Mary Bufe, WE&T