America’s Water Treatment Industry Faces Big Challenges. Here’s How Solar Energy Flips the Dialogue to Big Opportunities.

Experts agree that America’s water and wastewater treatment industry is facing a number of significant challenges. Customers are often oblivious to the issues. As long as clean water comes from the faucet, the shower’s hot, the pool is crystal blue and waste is handled properly, life’s good, right?

Beneath this false sense of security are issues that touch all customers: commercial, municipal and residential. Let’s take a look at five of the biggest challenges facing the water treatment industry:

Aging Infrastructure. The American Water Works Association (AWWA)’s 2018 survey of water industry professionals lists renewal and replacement of aging water and wastewater infrastructure as the top issue facing the water industry today. Plants and pipes are old and need to be updated, a costly, labor intensive and often inconvenient process. According to an article I recently read, it will take upwards of $180 billion to repair U.S. wastewater plants across the country.

Financing Infrastructure Improvements. How to finance capital improvements, particularly in small and rural systems, is a big question. Plants that serve smaller populations generate less revenue, and if rates have been kept low, there likely aren’t enough funds in reserve to cover the expense of much-needed upgrades or emergency repairs. One answer is to increase rates to customers, never a popular option.

Energy consumption. Energy consumption is one of the largest expenses in operating wastewater treatment plants. Wastewater treatment consumes upwards of 3% of America’s electrical power, or approximately 60 terawatt hours per year. In municipal water  plants, biological treatment requires the most electricity, typically as much as 60% of a plant’s energy usage. Modern, energy efficient equipment is part of the solution, but that takes capital.

Fluctuations in Population. The coronavirus pandemic is causing historic shifts in populations from large cities to smaller towns. Although they may not be feeling it yet, metropolitan areas will experience declines in revenue, which will cause stress to municipal service providers like water treatment plants. The flip side it greater demand for services in smaller communities and the accompanying stress of meeting this new demand. Some communities are losing population due to other factors such as age and lack of jobs, which impacts demand for water services.

Environmental Impact. Water treatment plants recycle water, and that’s a good thing. Water treatment plants are  subject to strict environmental regulations regarding water, but as large energy consumers, there’s also mounting pressure on municipalities and governments to lead the way in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Some of this can be achieved with more energy efficient processes, but other changes are needed to reduce plants’ carbon footprints.

Challenges = Opportunities

These challenges are not insurmountable. An entirely new generation of technology has or is being developed to make America’s water treatment plants operate more efficiently, more economically and sustainably. Solar energy is one of the technologies that can help the water treatment industry turn big challenges into big opportunities quickly and simply. Here’s how:

By converting to solar energy, water treatment plants can reduce monthly electric costs by as much as half. Let that sink in a minute. If energy costs are one of a plant’s largest expenses and you cut it in half, that’s a whole lot of money that can be redirected to modernizing infrastructure and improving operations. A portion of the savings can be directed to cash reserves for future unforeseen needs or emergencies. Generating reserves to spend on future improvements is so much better than borrowing or holding bond referendums.

It’s worth mentioning that today’s solar arrays are designed to operate for 40-plus years with routine and preventive maintenance, which solar solution providers like Solential provide. Maintenance costs are also nominal and when coupled with technologies like Solential’s cloud-based software Solview, which enables 24/7 remote monitoring, many maintenance issues can be avoided altogether. Learn more about Solview here.

Moving to solar energy brings rate stability. With solar, monthly electricity costs will no longer be vulnerable to seasonal rate variability or other factors like rising fuels costs or shortages. It also helps stabilize water and sewer rates for the plant’s customers, always a win.

While solar won’t change the amount of electricity a plant consumes, it does change to a renewable source, which has a profound impact on environmental impact. Moving from fossil fuel-generated electricity to “green” solar will result in a significant reduction in carbon emissions. This is beneficial from a regulatory standpoint, but also enables municipal water treatment facilities to model the behavior they’d like to see across their communities. It’s the kind of “walk-the-talk” behavior businesses and citizens appreciate from city leaders.   

Solar systems help water treatment plants adapt to changing electricity needs. Populations may be in flux, but the demand for affordable, reliable water and sewer services remains constant. Solar solutions are sized based on a plant’s current and/or projected electricity usage. Energy usage audits are an important part of what commercial solar solutions companies like Solential do at the start of a solar project. If a plant needs more electricity down the road, the system can easily be expanded with additional solar arrays. Likewise, if electricity requirements decrease, it’s possible that excess solar energy can be sold to the local utility company creating passive income for the plant. Either way, solar is flexible and definitely relieves a big source of stress!

Yes, America’s water treatment industry has some big challenges, but let me flip one last opportunity on you: converting to solar is more affordable than ever. The EPA, DOE, FDA and local governments have grants and other financial incentives available to support solar adoption by municipalities and local utilities. Check on a previous blog on this very topic. And Solential is very good at connecting customers to grants and other financing. If you’d like to learn more, call or text me at 317-627-4530 or email I’m an optimistic person; I know Solential can help you!