Easy Bay Climate Change Initiatives, Including Net Zero Energy Consumption, Set The Example

The East Bay Municipal Utility District is a pioneer in planning for the impacts of a warming planet. Its initiatives can set an example for other water agencies.
Easy Bay Climate Change Initiatives, Including Net Zero Energy Consumption, Set The Example
Clifford Chan

Where will most people first feel the effects of climate change? In the supply and quality of water. That’s according to Clifford Chan, operations and maintenance manager with the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD).

Chan draws that belief from the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body devoted to climate science. EBMUD is a leader in climate change planning and action. The district supplies drinking water to 1.3 million customers in California’s Alameda and Contra Costa counties and operates wastewater treatment facilities that serve 650,000 customers and protect San Francisco Bay.

Its mission includes managing natural resources in its care, providing reliable, high-quality water and wastewater services at reasonable rates, and preserving and protecting the environment for future generations. As part of that mission, the district incorporates climate change in its strategic planning. Its Climate Change Monitoring and Response Plan (http://www.ebmud.com/about-us/sustainability/climate-change/) informs decisions about water supply, water quality and infrastructure planning and guides mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.

Chan shared insights on the district’s approach to climate change and suggestions to other water and wastewater agencies in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

Why is it important for water and wastewater agencies to take note of climate change and prepare for it?

Chan: We believe the first impact society will feel as a result of climate change is the impact on water. If the global temperature increases by two or three degrees, people may not notice. But if they have to reduce water consumption due to droughts, or if their water has a different taste and odor because of algal blooms in the raw water reservoirs, those are things people will notice. One thing the water industry has to maintain is the public trust that a supply of high-quality water will be there. If we don’t protect the environment and we don’t address climate change, we will begin to lose that trust.

How did the EBMUD climate change plan evolve?

Chan: Back in 2006 we put out our first strategic plan, which didn’t include plans to explicitly address climate change. Two years later, when we updated that plan, we put in specific goals to address climate change. We evolved from a discussion of what we could do to reduce energy usage, to what we could do to understand climate change, to how we could include it in our strategic planning and become actively involved in addressing it.

Why does climate change fall under the operations and maintenance umbrella at your agency?

Chan: Before my current position, I was in charge of the operations of our water treatment and distribution facilities. We knew we needed to involve all departments in climate change planning, but some group had to lead it. The most obvious choice was the operations and maintenance department, which is the largest group at the district and the department responsible for the most energy.

Climate change affects your agency because you are in a drought-prone area and are on the ocean. Does climate change matter to agencies not in similar locations?

Chan: Yes. On the East Coast, we saw Hurricane Sandy damage treatment facilities and impact their ability to produce clean water. Elsewhere we’ve seen outbreaks of algal blooms and toxins that treatment plants weren’t equipped to manage. Some of these incidents required the utilities to send boil water notices. We see over-drafting of groundwater in California and the Midwest. Water supply is going to affect everyone. Customers will feel impacts on the water supply, quality and on what they spend for water.

What would you recommend that agencies do now, at a minimum, to address climate change?

Chan: We feel the first step is to start a discussion. Get your staff and elected officials talking about climate change and understanding the impacts. Then share that discussion with your customers so they start asking questions: How should we respond? What should we do? There is a nexus between water and energy. Most people, when they look at a water main leak in the street, see water being wasted. But anytime there is a leak, that’s also energy being lost, because we use energy to treat and distribute water.

Why should climate change be part of a utility’s strategic plan?

Chan: Climate change is just one of many uncertainties utilities need to address. Why would you not plan for climate change when you’re planning, for example, to replace aging infrastructure and for changes in your demographics and demand? Climate change isn’t something you treat as the one and only problem you have to solve. If you address climate change, you’ll likely also address other uncertainties you’re facing.

How does planning for climate change help address other uncertainties?

Chan: When we talk about climate change and its risks, one thing we consider is that we may see an increase in water demand. For example, a warming climate will increase evapotranspiration, and water demand may go up. So, for example, if you’re going to design and build a reservoir, once you build it, you’re not going to revisit that reservoir for 50 or 100 years. If you were planning a 1-million-gallon reservoir, you might look at your climate change analysis and say, “Maybe we should build it for 1.1 million gallons.” That is more cost-effective than finding out years later that the reservoir is too small. You’re making the best use of public funds by investing wisely today for future uncertainties.

What would you say to a utility where the leadership is skeptical of or does not believe in climate change or that people are the cause?

Chan: You don’t have to debate who is causing the problem. Just look at the data. Even the lowest projection of where carbon dioxide levels will be in our atmosphere is higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years. If you look at the planet as a whole, the 10 warmest years on record, except for one back in the 1990s, have all occurred in the current century. We’ve seen sea level rise by more than a foot. We see portions of the Antarctic glaciers collapsing. These are not things that are projected to happen in the future. This is happening now. So when we build facilities, we have to start thinking about sea level rise and how that might affect those facilities and our customers. Let’s plan for these changes we see in the climate so we can be better prepared.

What would you say is your agency’s signature achievement related to climate change?

Chan: Our biggest achievement on the wastewater and water sides is that we produce more renewable energy than all the energy we consume in a year. We were the first wastewater facility to achieve the goal of being energy self-sufficient through our biogas cogeneration facilities. On the water side, we’ve been producing more hydropower than we consume for many years. We continue to build solar. We have about 1.2 MW of photovoltaics, and we’re looking to add another 1 MW. If you look at the price of solar panels, that is an easy thing for many utilities to do too. One advantage utilities have is that we own a lot of land. We can take advantage of that land to generate solar power.

Where is EBMUD going in the next couple of years with respect to climate change actions?

Chan: We will continue to monitor climate science — not just the global data but the data very specific to our area. We’ll also continue to look at how we can use energy more efficiently. A large portion of the energy we use is the fuel we burn. We’re looking at more hybrid and electric vehicles and at hybrid construction equipment as well. We’re also exploring more ways to purchase green power to further minimize our impact on climate change.

What resources would you recommend for utility leaders or operators who want to know more about this subject?

Chan: First, look to the U.S. EPA website on Climate Ready Water Utilities (http://water.epa.gov/infrastructure/watersecurity/climate/index.cfm). We’ve been part of that program for about six years. Its mission is to provide tools for utilities to assess the impact of climate change on their operations and to educate their staffs, elected officials and the public.

Next, review the National Climate Assessment (http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/). It includes summaries that talk about the impacts of climate change to all sectors. Finally, for a global perspective, look to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (http://ipcc.ch/). They released their fifth assessment report last year. It includes volumes on the science, mitigation, and impacts and adaptations.

What are the key points you would like leaders of other utilities to remember about addressing climate change?

Chan: Get a conversation going about climate change. Understand the risks and the impacts of climate change to your utility. And when you start planning for facilities and infrastructure, consider the impacts of climate change in your planning. It will make you more resilient in the future, for climate change and for other uncertainties.


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