The clean-water, clean-energy link

In the ongoing debate over America’s energy future, much of the focus has been on the need for a new approach that will better meet our national-security requirements, boost our economy and protect our environment. All of these are valid and compelling reasons to chart a new energy future.

The present stalemate over forging a new national energy policy makes it essential that we look at the innovative solutions that are springing up all across the country. It’s time for Washington to learn from the practical problem-solvers who have been successfully addressing tough environmental challenges for years, particularly our local municipal water and wastewater utilities. 

According to a 2008 EPA report, America’s municipal utilities are spending $4 billion a year on energy to operate our wastewater and drinking water systems to give the American people clean, safe water.  In doing so, they are the unwilling partners in a broken energy system that works against their customers’ and the nation’s best interests. 

Wastewater treatment plants need electricity to power their pumps and their unique equipment. Depending on size, these plants can spend up to 30 percent of their operating costs on electricity.  This year the Water Environment Research Foundation reports that only debt service and labor costs account for larger portions of the budget. The electricity costs of providing drinking water can be even higher, according to EPA.

That’s where the problem-solvers enter the picture. Local water and wastewater utilities are showing us the practical benefits of a new energy future. 

In the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) is moving ahead with plans that move away from our current broken energy policies. 

The Seneca wastewater treatment plant in Germantown can handle as much as 26 million gallons of wastewater per day. The Western Branch wastewater treatment plant in Upper Marlboro can handle up to 30 million gallons. WSSC is planning a solar photovoltaic project that will generate power to meet both plants’ electricity needs from clean, solar power. The utility will sell any excess power back to the grid. WSSC estimates this project alone to save the utility and its customers $6.4 million over 20 years. 

The utility has another project that is even more compelling.

Installing a biofuel-based generator will meet the heating and power needs at both the Seneca facility and the Piscataway wastewater treatment plant in Prince George’s County. WSSC says the projects will generate an additional 1,500 kW of electricity while also eliminating 25,000 tons of sludge and the need to purchase 3,500 tons of toxic lime. Overall, the projects are expected to save the utility $2.5 million a year.

Simple improvements to existing operations that increase energy efficiency can be another money-saver for our water utilities.

The city of Rockville currently spends $700,000-750,000 on energy costs per year at its drinking water treatment plant. The efficiency upgrades being made with recovery act funding should save the city 5-10 percent a year on its electric bill. That’s $70,000-75,000 that can be put to use elsewhere in the municipality or returned to consumers.

While official Washington hesitates, states, localities and municipal authorities are moving ahead with projects that point the way toward a more sustainable energy future. Each project relies on a skilled domestic workforce to get the job done. In fact, in the long-term, the U.S. Conference of Mayors recently found that $1 of water and sewer infrastructure investment increases GDP by more than $6. And every job in water and sewer infrastructure creates over three additional jobs in the national economy to support that job.

Every one of these Maryland projects can be duplicated around the country, putting a big dent into the nation’s electricity bill.

Today, with modest help from federal and state resources, some of these water companies are making the smart investments that will generate benefits for consumers while simultaneously lessening carbon pollution. A national energy policy that recognizes the wisdom of these local problem-solvers would support the rapid expansion of these kinds of solutions across the country.

Seneca, Piscataway and Rockville are located within a few miles of the Capitol. These are real projects, producing real results and creating real jobs for local contractors. We should follow the lead of these practical problem-solvers and develop a national energy policy that rewards efficiency, invests in clean technologies and puts thousands of Americans to work in the process.

Sen. Cardin is the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Water and Wildlife Subcommittee.