Water and wastewater utilities must change with the times. Here’s how one organization is intentionally adapting.
- Find new business opportunities.
- Commit to innovation.
- Lead by influencing change.
- Engage stakeholders.
- Invest in infrastructure for the future.
- Provide quality service.
- Exercise fiduciary responsibility.
Those statements sound like the goals of a forward-thinking business, right? However, in this case, they are paraphrases of the guiding principles of Avon Lake Regional Water (Ohio).
Across the country, many water utilities are shedding the old, classically conservative, "this way has always worked for us" mentality to become more progressive. The industry as a whole is embracing what Albert Einstein said: "We can't solve the problems of today by thinking the way we thought when we created them."
Attend any industry conference, and you'll find presentations about utilities — large and small — finding new revenue sources and creating new, valuable products.
My organization — Avon Lake Regional Water — is beginning a master planning effort to identify options for better use of our solids processing facilities (digesters). By completing the plan, we will determine what new feedstocks/wastes we could take in for additional revenue and fuel and what the interest level might be for different types of soil amendments, fertilizers, etc., and/or natural gas as potential new product lines. In other words, we are changing from the mindset that we are exclusively a wastewater treater — and water producer — by trying to identify and fill needs for three new potential types of customers:
- Customers who need a new and less-expensive way to dispose of a waste stream.
- Customers who want organic material for soil amendment, fertilizer or other needs.
- Customers who can use the natural gas we create — we could even be our own customer.
We are embracing an entrepreneurial spirit so we don't have to rely as much on our wastewater customers.
It is amazing how quickly some new ideas are embraced within the sector. As we began rehabilitating our wastewater treatment plant, we only considered turbo blowers — as many others are doing — which are estimated to save about 1.5 million kWh/year and $75,000/year. We also asked our consultant to conduct an Envision workshop, which identified opportunities for reducing energy expenses regarding HVAC by conditioning inlet air with exhaust air and reducing the number of air changes per hour in certain buildings. Each of these energy-saving opportunities have very short payback periods regarding the additional investment, and in our view are considered "no-brainers" even though they are not yet normal business practice.
"Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything," said George Bernard Shaw.
Lately, utilities have been increasingly willing to take more calculated risks to reduce expenses. For example, at Avon Lake, we switched from a fixed price energy contract to a "block and index" contract. With this type of contract, we buy most of our power at the index price, which is usually much lower than a fixed price. However, we buy blocks of power during critical times of the year to reduce risk for price spikes. By taking some of the risk away from the electricity generator, we saved $125,000 during the first half of 2015 while also buying 100 percent renewable power.
As a public water and wastewater service provider, our customers have no choice but us. We want to ensure they are satsified with our service and we want them to know the money they send us is being spent wisely. Our outreach efforts through traditional and social media and our campaigns are meant to have a positive, lasting impression.
We are glad we are not breaking new ground in these undertakings. We are part of a new movement that water utilities have begun — one that is providing customers a higher level of service, better protecting the environment and reducing impact on future generations.
About the author
Todd Danielson is the chief utilities executive of Avon Lake Regional Water, a utility on the shores of Lake Erie that provides water to 200,000 Ohioans through retail and bulk sales and treats wastewater generated by 30,000 residents.