Advancing Energy Efficiency in Water Systems Requires New Strategies

Advancing Energy Efficiency in Water Systems Requires New Strategies

This piece was originally published in the June 2016 issue of ei, the magazine of the electroindustry.

By Lorraine White, Project Manager, GEI Consultants Inc.


Public water supply systems are estimated to consume more than 39 billion kWh/year, or an estimated one percent of total electricity use in the U.S., to develop, transport, treat, and deliver billions of gallons of water to end users.[1]

A recent NEMA study conducted by GEI Consultants Inc. and its partners, the Alliance for Water Efficiency and M-Cubed, found that more than $200 million annually could be saved by increasing the energy efficiency of these systems. Critical to this improved efficiency is the increased adoption and use of highly efficient motors, controls, and other electrical equipment. Moreover, the electroindustry can play a significant and more direct role in supporting this transition by applying new business strategies to optimize how these systems are operated.

As NEMA members know, the energy efficiency and performance of electro-technologies used in America’s water systems have improved significantly over the years. After labor, energy is the highest operating cost for water and wastewater service providers.[2] Between 55 and 90 percent of overall electricity use by water supply systems is associated with pumping.[3]

More-efficient and better-performing motors, controls, and other devices used by water system managers have the potential to significantly reduce costs, improve reliability, and provide operational flexibility for system managers. Despite these potential benefits, the water sector has been slow to adopt these new and innovative devices.

NEMA’s study provided meaningful insights into the level of interest in institutional and financial challenges to advancing efficiency in these water systems and possible steps that NEMA and its members can take to overcome them.

To ensure sustainable management of these water systems, optimizing energy use is critical for both cost control and environmental stewardship. Effective approaches, best practices, and tools have been studied and guidelines published in an effort to help managers of the U.S. water systems adapt to the increased regulatory requirements, highly variable climate conditions, and environmental complexities they face. These approaches include first understanding where in the water system energy is used, then assessing options to reduce this demand through operational and equipment changes, and finally using sensors, controls, and data management systems to monitor and track progress. This approach re-enforces the adage that one can only effectively manage what is measured. It is fundamental to getting the best value out of your assets.

Yet, institutional and financial barriers persist, limiting the understanding and openness of managers to adopting new technologies. These are water managers after all—not energy managers—and they are focused on a different set of requirements and customer demands. Working mostly through vendors and distributors, few manufacturers have interactive relationships directly with water managers or decision makers to ensure that they know about new, more-efficient technology options. With as much as $1 trillion needed in water and wastewater infrastructure investment, prioritizing energy efficiency can be a challenge.

Game-Changing Strategies

Through its study, NEMA identified new strategies and tactics that may be able to help tackle these barriers, increasing the penetration of new, energy-efficient technologies in this risk-averse sector. The following three strategies are based on changing the existing business model to allow a more flexible approach to the water sector.

Develop a Brand-Agnostic Program

One recommended strategy is to develop a brand-agnostic program to more directly help water utilities better understand technological advances, develop the analytic capacity to optimize their systems, and improve methods to operate and monitor their systems.

Rather than relying solely on more traditional business mechanisms that involve middleman sales agents, those most knowledgeable with the pumps should

  • facilitate site audits,
  • perform pump evaluations,
  • conduct testing and system optimization assessments, and
  • educate and train water utility staff.

Being more directly involved and maintaining a consistent presence in water-related associations, non-governmental organizations, and advocacy groups will increase NEMA members’ understanding of the many opportunities the water sector has to improve the energy efficiency of their processes. This interaction will support an exchange of information about issues and challenges faced by water utilities and provide paths to more direct agency interactions for project development.

Build on the Business Model of ESCOs

Another recommended strategy is to build on the business model of the energy services company (ESCO), an industry that has existed for more than two decades to promote energy-saving strategies and measures, mostly in the commercial and public building sectors.

An important feature of ESCOs is that they are one-stop shops for all relevant energy information and services. A viable business case can be made for promoting water ESCOs (WESCOs), which can tailor their services to water utilities to educate, implement, and finance energy efficiency projects.

Some NEMA members already offer WESCO services, assisting water utilities with better understanding their systems, identifying where opportunities for energy improvements exist, and learning how to integrate those technologies effectively into their systems.

WESCOs can help with funding as well, since they are more familiar with available incentives and investment programs, especially those offered by energy agencies and utilities.

Tap New Funding

New funding resources need to be tapped.

In July 2014, the Obama administration launched the Build American Investment Initiative to find new ways to increase investment in America’s infrastructure, including water supply systems. Through this initiative, the administration intends to facilitate partnerships between federal, state, and local agencies and the private sector.

As part of this initiative, the Water Infrastructure and Resiliency Finance Center was established. Using federal grants to attract private capital, this center promotes public-private partnerships to support more effective investments in water systems and water quality improvements. To ensure that these investments do not simply build what existed before, decision makers and investors need to understand technological advances that can turn our water infrastructure into sustainable systems for the 21st century. Higher energy efficiency in the production and delivery of water services needs to be promoted as part of that process.

Ms. White is an environmental scientist and resource management specialist with more than 25 years of experience in the energy and water resources fields.

[1] Electric Power Research Institute and Water Research Foundation (2013). Electricity Use and Management in the Municipal Water Supply and Wastewater Industries, 3002001433, Final Report, November 2013.

[2] WRF (2011) Energy Efficiency in the Water Industry: A Compendium of Best Practices and Case Studies, Published by WRF for Global Water Research Coalition, Web Report #4270. March 2011.

[3] EPRI/WRF (2013) Electricity Use and Management in the Municipal Water Supply and Wastewater Industries, Final Report, prepared by EnerNOC, Inc. under contract to EPRI, November 2013.

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