Catalyzing Water Infrastructure Renewal | Fluence

Replacing aging water infrastructure in the U.S. could cost at least $1 trillion in the next quarter century.

Decentralized treatment could be a key to making the process affordable

Water utilities in the United States are facing infrastructure obsolescence on a grand scale. Replacing the infrastructure, especially old pipework, could cost the nation at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years. To catalyze a renewal on this scale, a new paper recommends a four-point strategy for reinventing physical infrastructure and financial mechanisms to upgrade aging centralized water systems, much in the way California has revolutionized its electricity sector. The environmental management paper is by Newsha Ajami, director of urban water policy for the Water in the West program at Stanford University, and co-author Kim Quesnel. The four points are:

1. Recognizing within water leadership that market drivers and regulations are both necessary to create change.

For instance, California’s electricity utilities added renewable energy sources because regulations required them. During the process of meeting the regulations, however, the costs associated with the new technology decreased. The Stanford paper points out similar potential for the water sector if policy requires water utilities to maintain efficiency and use newer technology.

2. Water utilities must emulate the California electricity sector in seeking out new funding sources, including public and private funds, to acquire paradigm-shifting technology.

In turn, policymakers and regulators must institute policies that allow the utilities to seek out new financial structures to pay for their projects. This approach could be paid for with measures such as stormwater fees, tax credits, and green bonds.

3. Regulators and leadership should find ways to enable cost-sharing or mitigate initial costs to shepherd projects through.

Kim Quesnel, the study’s co-author, hopes such an approach would encourage grey water recycling systems to produce water for reuse in nonpotable applications, such as flushing toilets or landscaping irrigation. Utilities could retrofit or upgrade for no initial cost and amortize the financing on the water bill. This approach, called on-bill financing, has been used in the electricity sector.

4. Better project governance is needed, which requires new management techniques and more diversity in the public and private concerns involved in projects.

One way to achieve the goal is to bundle projects and pool financing sources to mitigate risk, encourage better management, and provide access to affordable financing for smaller projects. This approach allows a broader set of funders to become involved.

Decentralized Treatment Technology

As the U.S. faces a potential $1 trillion water infrastructure bill, one item that stands out is the cost of replacing more than a million miles of pipe, and not just to replace aging networks. According to the American Water Works Association (AWWA), changes in population will bring remarkable growth in some areas of the country. Under the traditional paradigm, that would require vast new piping networks.

But, using decentralized treatment could be the key to lowering the cost of both replacement of old infrastructure and bringing treatment to new areas. Decentralizing brings treatment to where it’s needed, greatly reducing the need for piping infrastructure.

Using decentralized treatment units for both desalination and wastewater treatment and reuse enables efficiency, quick deployment, flexibility, and scalability difficult to achieve with traditional treatment. Smart Packaged treatment units can be supplied in standard shipping containers, with units added or removed to meet demand. When a unit is no longer needed, it can be quickly redeployed or sold.

As in the case of California’s electrical infrastructure, evolution in water technology could make the need for water infrastructure improvement less daunting and less expensive.