With every passing of Earth Day we lament damage to the planet and plead for change to the behaviors that have led to it. Why not also call attention to opportunities for substantive improvements to the environment? The best opportunity to make swift and significant change lies where technology, public policy, and environmental stewardship converge, and “going green” also makes economic sense.
In New York State, wastewater treatment presents such an opportunity. New York State’s wastewater treatment plants are in desperate need of upgrade. The good news is the technology exists today not only to increase capacity and improve energy efficiency but also to transform wastewater treatment plants from outsized energy consumption to energy independence. Currently, local treatment plants consume around one-third of a municipality’s total energy budget. But new technologies are available that would allow wastewater treatment facilities to produce their own energy, saving taxpayers money while protecting waterways.
The New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC) reports that one-quarter of the state’s 610 wastewater treatment plants are operating beyond their useful life expectancy while many others use outmoded and inadequate technology. Not surprisingly, many of these obsolete plants often fail and dump raw sewage into rivers, lakes, and streams. Every year, according to the NYDEC old sewers flooded by storm water release more than 27 billion gallons of untreated sewage into the New York Harbor alone. A similar amount is dumped into the Great Lakes.
Outdated treatment processes and obsolete controls and equipment waste energy. New York’s wastewater sector uses approximately 25 percent more electricity on a per unit basis than the national average, according to New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). In 2001, NYSERDA reported, the state’s wastewater sector consumed more electricity than all the houses in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, Binghamton and Yonkers combined.
Fortunately, solutions are available and are being used successfully in other places. With anaerobic digesters to convert organic waste and a high-efficiency biogas-fueled turbine, the Oakland California East Bay Municipal Utility District wastewater treatment plant projects it will sell twice as much electricity as it uses by 2020. Several plants in Europe and Canada have achieved energy independence by converting sanitary sewage to biogas. At least two plants in New York – Brooklyn’s Newtown Creek and Gloversville Johnstown wastewater treatment plants – are creating and storing biogas to fuel their operations.
In 2008, the state comptroller estimated New York treatment plants required $13.6 billion in upgrades. Instead of merely sustaining outdated systems, the state and its municipalities have the golden opportunity to invest in new technologies to create the foundation for energy independent wastewater treatment. Updating New York’s wastewater treatment plants toward energy independence would have a profound effect on the fiscal and environmental health of the state and would make significance steps toward decreasing carbon footprint by removing wastewater treatment plants from dependence on the grid.
James S. Fralick, PhD. is a retired business executive and former Federal Reserve Senior Economist who specialized in State and Local budgetary issues. He also is an active conservationist serving as an officer on the Boards of the Finger Lakes Land Trust and the Canandaigua Lake Watershed Alliance.