Oh Crap!

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and realizing the goals of sustainability require that policymakers and market participants focus as much on water as energy. In California, the adoption of AB32 to reduce emissions and a series of progressively more challenging renewable energy goals look increasingly unrealistic unless the issues of water supply and reliability are factored into the new energy futures equation.

But this is NOT a rant about regulation. This is a good news story—one that gives me hope. It also feeds one of my growing beliefs that water and energy solutions are inseparably intertwined in our future. I have been researching these issues for a while now searching for insight about strategies, opportunities, and new business models that demonstrate or disprove my hypothesis.

Environmental Economics Matter

I’m not at all sure any of us want to trust our fate to the California Air Resources Board (CARB) or other regional air or water quality boards in the Golden State. Few have met a proposed regulation they did not like nor acknowledged a duty to balance the potential cost or disruptive impact of regulations with a practicality test.

To offer one example of the absurd, in California it violates state environmental regulations to spill drinking water on the street. Water agencies are routinely fined for doing so by regional boards alleging that treated drinking water might harm fish if it flows into creeks or into the bay.

One of the great weaknesses of our environmental policies is that they are not subject to any test of reasonableness. Federal, state or local resource and environmental agencies have no duty to balance the economic public interest with our environmental public interest. But in the “real world” we, of course, must do so every day.

The good news is that in places small and rational where economics still matter, customers are speaking and their public officials are listening and getting results. This good news example is right in my backyard—well not literally—we long ago gave up septic systems in favor of sanitary sewers. But most people never stop to think about what happens—after the flush.

The Contra Costa County Sanitary District (CCCSD), www.centralsan.org , is one of those unglamorous but essential public agencies quietly going about our business (sorry, I could not resist the pun) of improving environmental quality in more ways than the obvious. It collects and treats about 15 billion gallons per year of wastewater and today recycles about 620 million gallons of it to replace potable drinking water for landscape irrigation and another 400 million gallons for process water uses in its own operations.

The Business of Biosolids

A byproduct of treating wastewater is biosolids—-yes the treated, sanitized, and dried sterile ash left over. California alone produces about 750,000 dry tons of the stuff and most of it used to go to landfills. But CCCSD is one of a growing number of sanitary agencies changing that and in so doing they are reducing the costs of operations, creating jobs by new businesses for recycling applications—and reducing environmental impacts.

Why is this worth writing about in my blog? Because environmental sustainability is NOT about CARB regulations or “do-gooder” politicians adopting politically correct green policies while shifting the cost and impacts to others, it is about innovation, resourcefulness, economics and practical business savvy applied to everyday, real-world problems. What CCCSD does every day matters to California’s future.

Here’s a quick case study in the biosolids business emerging—after that flush:

Primary Treatment. In the beginning, wastewater collected goes into large sedimentation tanks where oil and grease are removed. The “primary sludge”—as it is officially called settles to the bottom of the tanks.

Secondary Treatment. At this stage the primary sludge is aerated to accelerate the growth of microorganisms that do their biological magic breaking down the materials in that oxygen-rich environment. The bacteria then sink to the bottom of the clarifier tank and is pumped along with some of the primary sludge to giant centrifuges (think spin cycle on your washer) to extract the water. The extracted water is disinfected with ultraviolet light and sent to a recycling plant for further treatment prior to reuse. The balance of treated wastewater called effluent is tested to assure it meets all clean water regulations and released into a river or bay.

Tertiary Treatment. Increasingly expect to see treated wastewater recycled into usable drinking water. Tertiary treatment raises the level of final treatment to improve effluent quality before it is discharged or re-used. This is happening more in Southern California and other arid climates where water reliability is threatened. More than one tertiary treatment process may be used at any treatment plant including filtration using sand or activated carbon, additional treatment for removal of nitrogen, phosphorus, arsenic or other pollutants, or treatment with ozone for additional disinfection for “effluent polishing”.

Energy Production from Biosolids. The dewatered material remaining is the biosolids product. This is a key part of the CCCSD strategy which combines methane gas from a nearby landfill to incinerate the biosolids and turn them into sterile dry ash. The waste heat is captured for use in boilers. The boiler steam drives blowers for the secondary aeration processes. The energy produced as a byproduct of incineration is used in a cogeneration plant adjacent to the wastewater plant. The result is that CCCSD produces about 90% of its own daily energy requirement and saves its customers about $1 million per year in energy costs while reducing landfill disposal of biosolids by 93%. Even the sterile ash is recycled into soil amendments by agricultural companies.

This is sustainability we can believe in! No bailouts required!