A Path To Sustainable Infrastructure Solutions

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Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

Today, for the most part, our communities’ infrastructure systems are developed and managed separately, by separate utilities and agencies. Sustainable infrastructure, on the other hand, blurs boundaries between our energy, transportation, water and waste systems to implement complementary strategies that benefit more than one system. Among our most important, and difficult, challenges will be reforming institutions and their funding mechanisms to enable and incentivize integrated, whole-system solutions that benefit our communities the most.

During the first half of 2014, the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure (CSI) at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, formally interviewed 70 of the Pacific Northwest’s top infrastructure innovators and thought leaders about how to achieve a future for the region and beyond where sustainable, resilient and affordable infrastructure systems provide vital services accessible to all, supporting healthy, prosperous, beautiful, and cohesive communities. Distilling the prevailing themes and key insights, the purpose of the report — “Infrastructure Crisis, Sustainable Solutions: Rethinking Our Infrastructure Investment Strategies” — is to provide inspiration and guidance to the region’s current and future infrastructure leaders, policymakers and change agents.

Integrated Solutions

Integrated solutions benefit more than one infrastructure system, plus deliver a generous range of other economic, social and environmental benefits. Integrated solutions take many forms, and require breaking through institutional silos (Figure 1). “Conventionally, we design infrastructure within its silo, rather than looking for opportunities to optimize between systems,” says Aaron Berg, President and Founder of Blue Tree Strategies. Water utilities, for example, might not consider tapping their pipe infrastructure for gravity-fed energy generation, even though this will slow the water’s flow downhill which, at certain times of year, is valuable for the utility.

Another example: shifting to electric vehicles. “The transportation and electric industries tend not to talk to each other,” says Angus Duncan, President of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation.

Integrating infrastructure systems also closes loops in communities. “In nature nothing goes to waste,” explains Steve Moddemeyer, Principal with CollinsWoerman and a leading advocate for closed loop infrastructure systems. “Instead waste becomes the feedstock for other systems.” He describes closing loops in urban systems as “identifying productive reuse of waste products at the smallest scale reasonable.”

Moddemeyer also points out that roughly 30 percent of a typical city is covered by streets and sidewalks, so the public owns, via the street right-of-way, much of the community’s most valuable urban real estate. Beneath those public streets lie an assortment of critical infrastructure pipes — for sewer, water, wastewater, storm water, natural gas, and sometimes electricity and telecommunications cable. If a single business controlled several systems concentrated on its real estate, it would be unthinkably bad management not to closely coordinate maintenance activities across business lines. Yet the infrastructure upon and under the public’s wealth of high value real estate is managed by separate utilities and agencies, each with their own mandates, budgets, planning and work cultures, making close coordination the exception rather than the rule.

Investing In Nature

According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), over the next 15 years, $10 trillion will be invested globally in water infrastructure alone (WRI, 2013). “Natural infrastructure,” an interconnected network of natural areas, open spaces and constructed features such as green roofs, green streets, bioswales, and constructed wetlands, planted in rich water-retaining composted soil, is poised to make a major contribution. Natural infrastructure can reliably augment the functions of conventional engineered systems (“gray infrastructure”), often at much lower cost by shrinking the need for water filtration plants, reservoirs, chillers, and dikes and levees (Gartner, 2013).

“Restoring natural processes in coordination with built infrastructure,” says Callie Ridolfi, President of Ridolfi Inc., an engineering firm specializing in sustainable practices, “can improve performance, enhance adaptive capacity and resilience, and create cost-effective infrastructure solutions.” The WRI studied six U.S. cities, which saved 60 percent on their water infrastructure investment using natural infrastructure strategies. In addition, these systems increased the longevity of conventional systems (WRI, 2013).

While investments in natural infrastructure can save money on water infrastructure, rebuilding natural systems simultaneously spreads benefits throughout the community. Important community co-benefits of natural infrastructure extend from storm water and flood management to protection of clean water supplies, local climate control and energy savings, biocarbon capture, cleaner air, improved habitat for a variety of native species, and enhanced beauty and comfort in urban communities.

The co-benefits of investing in nature are not merely nice add-ons but integral to Oregon Metro’s $15 million Nature in Neighborhoods Capital Grants program, managed by Mary Rose Navarro. “If this grant program simply focused on urban nature, we would be failing to capitalize on the opportunity to fully invest in our communities,” says Navarro. “Projects need to be thoughtfully and creatively conceived to achieve multiple benefits such as economic development, local job creation, workforce development, and community cohesiveness.”

Smart Energy, Smart Water

Saving energy saves water, as does switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Nuclear, coal and gas (especially deep shale gas) energy facilities require enormous amounts of water — 48 percent of all U.S. water withdrawals in 2000, according to U.S. Geological Survey (U.S. DOE/NREL, 2006) — while wind and solar PV require very little water. A typical coal plant, for example, can require seven times more water in its lifetime than the annual consumption of the entire city of Paris, according to Michael Liebriech, CEO of Bloomberg New Energy Finance (Liebreich, 2012). Reliance on huge supplies of cool water is a significant risk factor for these power plants, as well as the Northwest’s hydropower facilities, into the future, especially as climate change impacts hydrologic patterns.

Saving water, in turn, saves energy. Drinking water and wastewater systems alone consume an estimated 3 to 4 percent of all energy in the U.S., resulting in 45 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. EPA (USEPA, 2013). A recent study by the Pacific Institute of the potential for water-use efficiency in drought-stricken California found that solutions harnessing existing, cost-effective technologies in four areas — urban, agriculture, water recycling and storm water capture — can save roughly a third of current statewide demand (Pacific Institute, 2014).

Water systems consume a lot of energy, but can also be tapped for energy. For example, wherever water flows downhill through pipes there is potential energy, and new miniturbine technology, such as that pioneered by Portland-based Lucid Energy, could make it profitable for water utilities to tap it. Wastewater utilities are increasingly harnessing methane generated at their treatment plants via anaerobic digestion, as well as deriving value by transforming the carbon and nutrient-rich biosolids that are left over after the treatment process into a marketable, biologically-rich soil amendment.

Forward-looking communities are also pulling out heat embedded in the wastewater flowing through sewer pipes to meet hot water and space heating needs. A recent feasibility study prepared for the Washington Department of Corrections found sewer heat recovery technology could save $250,000 a year in diesel fuel costs at the Clallam Bay Corrections facility, enough to pay back the capital and installation costs in less than four years (www.sewageheatrecovery.com/; International, 2014).

Paying The Bill

We clearly have abundant opportunities to change how we spend and invest in our infrastructure to develop smarter, more affordable, sustainable and resilient systems. So why is sustainable infrastructure still the exception rather than the rule? The thought leaders interviewed for this report identified many reasons why the status quo is tenacious. One example is the typical approach to awarding infrastructure construction contracts to the lowest bidder. “If your job as a contractor is to respond with the lowest bid for construction, you’re not incentivized to care about minimizing operating expenses over the 30-year lifespan,” says Chris Taylor of the West Coast Infrastructure Exchange.

Infrastructure finance expert Karen Williams of Carroll Community Investments, LLC adds, “Traditional procurement leaves the vast bulk of the risk with the public owner, even though the owner is not in primary control of design, construction, and long-term performance risks.” Williams notes that these risks discourage innovation: “Agencies usually avoid innovation in favor of long-proven methodologies, even if the innovative solution might result in a better performing product.”

The basic business model by which our utilities and infrastructure agencies are funded may pose a fundamental barrier to innovation. Currently, revenues to pay for road, water, electricity and waste infrastructures depend heavily on rates or taxes paid by customers based on sales volume. The more resources consumed or waste produced, the more revenue is generated to pay for the capital and O&M costs of infrastructure services, an approach that has worked reasonably well in the past. The shift toward sustainable infrastructure investments, however, that actively encourage conservation, distributed systems, and alternative technologies can shrink sales of gasoline, water, and power, and reduce solid waste tipping fees. “This creates a profound disincentive to fully investing in affordable and sustainable infrastructure solutions,” he adds. “As policymakers and regulators, we absolutely have to crack this nut.”

Read the full article in BioCycle Magazine

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