Amid the rising drumbeat of pressures to bolster sustainability and resilience in their complex operations, U.S. water utilities in an evolving sector are increasingly aware of the challenges and opportunities of going greener against the backdrop of climate change.
Evidence of that shifting mindset is abundant as water and wastewater utilities sort out how decarbonization — any approach that directly cuts greenhouse gas emissions and energy use — fits inextricably into their sustainability goals.
Black & Veatch’s 2023 Water Report, based on expert analyses of survey responses from roughly 450 U.S. water sector stakeholders, illustrates headway in adopting or at least seriously considering ways in which the sector can and should lower its carbon footprint.
And yet, progress isn’t as bold as some may have hoped, given that much of the emphasis appears to be on other sustainability targets, at least for now.
Decarbonization drivers that act as catalysts for the utilities — especially among the larger utilities serving populations of at least half a million — include a desire to be a good citizen, building resiliency, regulations, and stakeholder mandates. Being a good citizen lends itself to some positive public relations opportunities locally, not to mention that decarbonization widely is viewed as simply the right thing to do.
Along this journey, water and wastewater utilities are taking various steps to reduce their energy use and cut greenhouse gas emissions. Fifty-three percent of respondents say they are pursuing or planning to pursue solar energy as an alternative. Electric vehicles (EVs) are drawing more attention from utility management, as 48 percent said they were looking at converting to electrified fleet vehicles — up appreciably from last year’s 29 percent response — with two-thirds of larger utilities falling into that category. But such migrations to EV fleets doesn’t appear to have the needed immediacy; 63 percent see those conversions as three to 10 years away.
Purchasing renewable energy from the grid also increased significantly in this year’s survey, with 22 percent responding positively, up from just 13 percent last year. Utilizing Envision and/or LEED sustainability strategies posted a strong gain, with 29 percent indicating an interest, compared with just 12 percent a year ago. Sixteen percent of all respondents said they were pursuing or planning to pursue battery energy storage systems (Figure 27).
The larger utilities, which have more financial resources and external pressures to get greener than their smaller counterparts, are indicating an openness to pursue other energy options. One third stated they may pursue low-carbon building materials, while smaller numbers were pursuing or planning to pursue carbon capture technologies or hydrogen fuel sources.
Carbon Neutrality Not on the Drawing Board
While there are some specific actions in place or in the planning stages to lessen their carbon footprints, most water utilities — when asked when they expect to achieve carbon neutrality — aren’t clear. Two-thirds — 67 percent — said they simply didn’t know, while 22 percent said they don’t expect to reach that goal within 15 years. On this question, there was no significant disparity between the larger and smaller utilities (Figure 28).
A full 60 percent of respondents replied “no” to whether they were experiencing pressure from their community or from regulatory agencies to adopt related sustainable practices. This corresponds with a separate survey question about their utility’s biggest drivers for pursuing decarbonization plans, with a mere 15 percent of respondents citing a stakeholder mandate. Plans to create a net zero roadmap garnered only an 8 percent response.
All of this suggests that while water utilities view sustainability as a crucial component, they primarily are looking at it from a water usage and water stewardship perspective, rather than an energy perspective. That’s equivalent to their electric and natural gas utility counterparts focusing on energy usage, rather than water conservation measures.
When it comes to specific decarbonization strategies, some four in 10 — 41 percent — of respondents said they do not have a decarbonization roadmap, although much of that is concentrated in utilities serving less than half a million. For those serving populations above that threshold, three-quarters — 74 percent — indicated they indeed had a decarbonization plan in place, demonstrating that the larger utilities acknowledge the importance of reducing their energy consumption and are taking appropriate actions.
Backup Power Generation: Fuels Still Rule
On the power side, the vast majority of the nation’s roughly 50,000 water utilities and 16,000 wastewater utilities have backup power capabilities — a requirement for dealing with unplanned outages and keeping communities safe and healthy. But carbon maintains its grip on these backup sources in a sector that consumes massive amounts of energy; similar to 2022, 86 percent of respondents say they continue to rely on diesel or gasoline power for backup. Since these backup systems see very limited use, generally only during emergencies, utilities may find it hard to justify the cost of alternatives even if those alternatives are greener, making it difficult for alternative backup resources to gain ground.
Even so, alternatives do have some footing in the market. Nearly one in five respondents — 18 percent — say they would utilize battery backup resources, consistent with 2022. More conventional backup resources, such as natural gas and multiple electric feeds, garnered a higher usage, at 41 percent and 34 percent, respectively (Figure 29).
Forward-thinking utilities should realize that it’s possible to deploy a blend of alternative methods that combine sustainability, resiliency and a lower carbon footprint. For instance, utilities could incorporate a combination of onsite generation, such as coupling renewable energy, biogas as a byproduct of wastewater treatment, and battery storage, thereby using assets that provide a continuous value. Even hydrogen potentially could be on the drawing board.
Landmark Legislation Makes Little Impact So Far
Well over a year since the historic Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) — also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law — became law in November 2021, nearly three-quarters of respondents — 73 percent — said it had not had any impact on decarbonization, with just 14 percent reporting a slight positive impact. This low response likely is due to the perception that funding via the IIJA is perceived as too cumbersome of a process, combined with the fact that water utilities are not sufficiently focused on decarbonization.
Still, one of the biggest complaints utilities have about implementing any sort of sustainability strategy is the price tag. Two-thirds of all respondents pointed to affordability as the biggest hurdle in achieving sustainability targets, with the larger utilities coming in at 89 percent on that topic. Nearly one-half of all respondents cited availability of resources or capacity as being another major obstacle.
Decarbonization as Part of Sustainability
Most utilities have expanded their options when it comes to significantly reducing their carbon footprint, though they are on a wide scale when it comes to the maturity of those solutions. It requires a thorough study of their assets, a willingness to “think green” and the determination to turn those solutions into reality.
Larger utilities clearly have deeper pockets and are feeling more of the pressure to get greener with their energy usage, and it will take more time for the smaller water utilities to embrace meaningful decarbonization, given that much of their attention is on using and optimizing their current resources.
For now, purchasing renewable energy is an easy, responsible solution, but there are so many more options for water and wastewater utilities to examine. Well-structured plans that incorporate technical, strategic and financial considerations with expert input can position utilities to optimize across their resilience, efficiency and sustainability objectives. As these plans are implemented by the larger utilities, they will — over time — filter down to the smaller counterparts. Water utilities clearly understand the need and benefits of decarbonization and its linkage to sustainability, and with time they’ll make the reduction of energy usage and the cutting of greenhouse gas emissions a stronger component of their overall strategies.