The Center for Sustainable Infrastructure Blog

Advancing a new sustainable infrastructure paradigm and practice in the Northwest and beyond

The Center for Sustainable Infrastructure Blog

Upcoming Event: WA Clean Energy and Construction Centers of Excellence Best Practices Summit

May 4th, 2017 · No Comments · --Integrated Systems--, Energy

On behalf of the Washington Clean Energy and Construction Centers of Excellence, we are pleased to share the full agenda for the 12th Annual Best Practices Summit on June 1 and 2 in the new Centralia College TransAlta Commons building. We have an exciting venue lined up ranging from Mark Taylor an expert on Multi-Generations in the workforce and classroom to best practice apprenticeship models in energy, construction, manufacturing and cybersecurity. New this year is an evening Northwest salmon and steak dinner with keynote on June 1 – Chris Reykdal, WA Office of Public Instruction will be talking about bridging K-12 and CTC workforce education. In addition, Governor Inslee will be joining us for the social hour.We hope that you are able to join us!! Please register at the link below.

For more information or to register go to:

We hope to see you there!
Barbara and Shana

Click to read full program document


Sustainable Energy Utilities and ESCO Financing Can Save Money and Reduce Carbon Footprints

May 3rd, 2017 · No Comments · Energy

saulk_0By Kathleen Saul Master of Environmental Studies Faculty at The Evergreen State College

“The quickest way to double your money is to fold it over and put it back in your pocket.”   —Will Rogers

William Penn Adair, aka Will Rogers, lived at a time before the spread of electric lights, before highways criss-crossed this nation, and when only 76.2 million people lived in the 45 states of the United States (1900 data).  His words ring true today as they did back then.  Today, over 308 million people reside in the 50 states and draw upon its natural resources to power cars and buses, computers, lights, heating and cooling systems, industrial equipment and cellular phones, hair dryers and electric toothbrushes, toll booths on highways and checkout stands in grocery stores.  Energy–sourced from coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydro, solar, wind, and other sources—keeps the country buzzing.

As expected, using energy is not free.  We pay for electricity in dollars per kWh, for natural gas in dollars per mmBTU, and gasoline or diesel for a car, bus or minivan in dollars per gallon.  Those prices fluctuate depending on national policies, subsidies accorded providers, global affairs (such as wars in the Middle East), demand, and local taxes (such as carbon taxes or taxes to pay for road repairs).

In recent years concern over global climate change and the impact of energy use on climate has forced many people to take a harder look at their energy consumption patterns.  Appliance manufacturers have introduced more efficient versions of popular brands.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Energy worked to develop labels to make it easier for consumers to choose more energy efficient options.  Automobile manufacturers have increased the miles per gallon achieved by many small cars.  As a result, the energy consumed by each American has gone down over time.


Figure 1: U.S. Energy Use Per Capita (Based on data from the World Bank, World Development Indicators)

But there is more to be done.  We have to turn our attention to the structures housing the computers and refrigerators, HVAC systems and televisions.  We need to look at personal residences and businesses.  This work starts with an energy audit.  After examining the structure and its energy profile, an energy service company (ESCO) provides a list of different options for making the home or business more energy efficient, how much each option will cost, and the amount of energy each will save.  The business owner or resident can determine how much invest.  They may decide just to replace light bulbs or may choose to invest in a new heating and cooling (HVAC) system, to replace leaky windows, and to add insulation to the attic and basement.  They will contract with the ESCO to do the work and to pay that ESCO based on how much money they save on their energy bills, from the start of the project until the total cost of the work has been repaid.  Figure 2 below illustrates a simple example:


Figure 2: A Simplified View of a New Way to Finance

If previous energy bills totaled $100 and new bills total $75 dollars per month, $25 per month (the hatched portion of the graph) will be paid towards the cost of the heating and cooling system, windows, and insulation.  There is no large up-front investment to worry about.  The bills are no higher than before the work was completed and, in the end, the building will be more energy efficient.  After the work has been paid off, bills will be reduced to $75 per month.

This same type of financing arrangement can also be applied toward renewable energy projects.  Rather than having to buy solar panels on credit, interested parties can work with a solar company which will install the panels and take the money that would have been paid to an electric company as the installment payment for the panels.  After a period of time, the interested parties become the owner of the panels and the electric bill drops to zero (theoretically).

The Delaware Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU) has built on this model to help increase the energy and water use efficiency of prisons and schools in Delaware, invest in renewable energy systems, and reduce the energy use of households.  The SEU, a tax-exempt entity, tapped the private bond market to raise $72.5 million with which to implement large scale, long-term sustainable energy measures.  These projects involve four interrelated contracts: a) A program agreement; b) A guaranteed savings agreement; c) An installment payment agreement; and d) An indenture (Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU): The Business Model of the SEU,  The program agreement describes the contracted relationship between the SEU, the ESCO(s), and other participants in the program.  It provides details about reporting requirements and monitoring programs, as well as specific targets for the programs.  The guaranteed savings agreement follows an audit by an ESCO and outlines the appropriate energy, water and other conservation measures, or renewable energy or distributed energy system installations that will be undertaken to reduce consumption.  The installment payment agreement details the plans for payments from the participant to the trustee.  The trustee works on behalf of the bondholders.  In the case of the Delaware SEU, the SEU is the trustee.  The relationship between the bondholders and the trustee is outline in the indenture.  Because the model relies on contractual agreements, the risk to any one party has been reduced.  Setting targets at the outset and providing monitoring throughout the life of the project both help ensure success of the energy efficiency and conservation projects.  Any deviations from the energy efficiency and conservation plans can be identified early and can be corrected.

In the case of the SEU, the figure looks slightly different than Figure 2 above.  Figure 3 shows that the Aggregate Guaranteed Savings over the life of the project will far exceed the Aggregate Payments made toward the project.  Thus, the concept is the same.  Regardless of the source of the funds, there is no large up-front payment and the contractually guaranteed savings will exceed the payments made.


Figure 3: Large Scale, Long Term Deep Retrofits (Source: Sustainable Energy Utility, SEU – The Business Model of the SEU)

Projects using this type of financing approach also have been implemented in Thane, India as part of the Campaign for Renewable Energy under Dr. Sanjay Mangala Gopal ; in Sonoma County, California and in Pennsylvania (See  Small scale, short-term projects can benefit from this approach, as can large-scale, long-term ones.   We can then put the money back into our pockets as Will Rogers bade us to do many, many years ago.



Transforming Our Vulnerable Water Infrastructure

April 19th, 2017 · No Comments · --Integrated Systems--, Water

rhysBy Rhys Roth, Director, Center for Sustainable Infrastructure

Face it: Most of us take water infrastructure for granted.

When we shower, flush, turn on the tap, or dodge the rain, we rarely give a second thought to the vast network of pipes, pumps, and treatment facilities that lie behind the water tap, the toilet, and the drains in our home and on the street.

But clean water is essential to every person’s life – to drink, bathe, cook, and clean. It’s also vital for every community to thrive. Water infrastructure not only supplies clean, on-demand water, it also protects us against infectious disease, toxic exposure, and destruction of home, business, and property from flood or fire.

In America as a whole, and where I live in the Pacific Northwest, much of our water supply, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure is old, at risk for breakdowns, and vulnerable to threats including earthquakes and climate extremes.

It’s time to pay attention and get to work.

Fortunately, a history-making revolution in the water sector is brewing. And I believe the Pacific Northwest can lead the way in developing cost-effective, integrated systems to supply, purify, and manage water that are among the most sustainable and resilient in the world.

A new report, A Northwest Vision for 2040 Water Infrastructure: Innovative Pathways, Smarter Spending, Better Outcomes, shows how.

This new report, released this month, by The Evergreen State College’s Center for Sustainable Infrastructure, which I wrote in collaboration with 50 industry experts spanning water supply, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure, is the first attempt to construct a regional shared vision for the future of water infrastructure in the Northwest.

It starts with region’s water utilities adopting new investment practices, guided by long-range vision and strategy. Northwest utilities spend several billion dollars each year to maintain, operate and modernize water infrastructure. The multi-billion dollar question: How do we generate the most long-term community value from these investments? 

A Northwest Vision for 2040 Water Infrastructure comprehensively overviews the wide-ranging and unprecedented challenges facing the region’s water utilities, and highlights innovative solutions being pioneered by both big and small communities on the West Coast.

The report also paints a picture of how the region can develop cost-effective, integrated, sustainable, and resilient water systems. To achieve that goal, investment strategies will be required that break down silos within the water sector and build new partnerships beyond it.

Current water infrastructure spending totals well north of $3 billion a year in Washington and Oregon, but existing funds are unlikely to be enough to replace the vast network of aged pipes, pumps, and treatment facilities originally installed 40 years and more ago. Many assets are nearing or beyond their expected lifespan, leading to roughly 240,000 water main breaks and between 23,000 and 75,000 sanitary sewage overflows per year in the United States,” the National Infrastructure Advisory Council says. NIAC puts the investment gap at $400 billion to $1 trillion nationwide.

Meanwhile, climate disruption is changing rainfall and water supply assumptions on which long-term investment decisions are made. Northwest utilities face the rather frightening added challenge of earthquakes that could cut off vital water services for weeks.

On the other hand, a new portfolio of water infrastructure solutions is opening exciting new opportunities for innovation. Many of these new approaches can save money for the local utility, and also offer multiple benefits for resilience, health, environment, prosperity, and community. Among changes the report overviews are:

  • “Net water positive” buildings that capture, treat and recycle water on site
  • Green infrastructure investments, from rain gardens, street bioswales, and engineered wetlands, to broader watershed restoration measures
  • Smart devices diffused throughout systems that provide managers with new tools to control flows and gain efficiencies.

A Northwest Vision for 2040 Water Infrastructure highlights a wide range of leadership examples, such as Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services, which saved $63 million on a sewer overhaul project with green infrastructure, much of it on customer properties. The small rural community of Orting, Washington – facing an urgent need to replace aging dikes and levees – developed a cost-effective strategy to restore natural river flow and wetlands, resulting in not only improved flood protection, but better habitat for salmon, and new green space and recreational trails for the community.

The report also recommends cost-sharing agreements that leverage multiple interests in green infrastructure, from water to recreation, wildlife and health. The report points to a leading example, Clean Water Services (CWS) of Hillsboro, Oregon. CWS averted a $60-$150 million treatment plant investment, plus $6 million in annual operating costs, with a streamside restoration investment, which cost only $4.3 million by 2007, while drawing millions more from state and federal partners with water and wildlife interests.

The time is now for a profound rethink of our water-related infrastructure investments. Look for 2-3 more posts from me on transforming water infrastructure investment over the next few weeks, highlighting key findings from our new report!


LOTT Clean Water Alliance’s Deschutes Valley Park and Reclaimed Water Tank Project

The Evergreen State College has created the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure (CSI) to champion a new infrastructure investment paradigm by centering on long-range strategic foresight, new decision tools, and integration across systems for broadly-shared, long-term community value. This is the third in a series of six reports CSI is producing to comprehensively detail an overall 25-year vision and pathway for Northwest infrastructure investment.

To learn more, visit, follow CSI’s blog, sign up for CSI’s email newsletter, and attend one of the following upcoming events.



UW’s Sustainability Studios Course Offers Model for Innovative Experiential Learning

April 13th, 2017 · No Comments · --Integrated Systems--


By Sara Brostrom – University of Washington Program on the Environment

I got the chance to teach my dream course this winter!

ENVIR 480: Sustainability Studios is an experiential learning course offered every quarter at the University of Washington. The theme changes each quarter in response to student interest and partnerships on the University of Washington campus. This winter the topic was sustainable infrastructure.

The main educational goals for this quarter were for students to experience, reflect and apply their learning to different examples of sustainable infrastructure aimed at managing water, transportation, energy, and land primarily in the Puget Sound region. These educational goals were met through a mix of classroom activities, fieldtrips, guest speakers, and perhaps most impactful, a quarter long project with a local organization.

For the projects, the class was divided into six groups. The projects included a comparative assessment of the green building standards of five different college campuses to the UW campus, a report on issues facing the UW Mercer Court Farm, a development plan for two land plots along the Duwamish, an assessment of the maintenance costs associated with low impact development facilities in the Puget Sound region, and a partnership with a UW start-up on implementing biogas as a service in developing countries. Each project tested students and provided them with an opportunity to learn in an authentic setting.

As an instructor, I learn something new every time I teach a class. This winter I took four valuable lessons to heart that I humbly offer to future instructors of an experiential learning course on sustainable infrastructure.

  1. Define your terms. There is no established definition for sustainable infrastructure. However, my students found the definition developed by Rhys Roth, the director of the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure at the Evergreen State College, the most approachable and applicable to nearly every example of sustainable infrastructure we discussed. Briefly, his definition clarifies that sustainable infrastructure is environmentally sound, resilient, integrated, affordable, rich in co-benefits, and beneficial to the community.

Plants used for the wastewater treatment at the Bullitt Center in Seattle.

  1. Get out of the classroom! Case studies describing successful and unsuccessful implementations of sustainable infrastructure created robust classroom discussions. However, I feel students had the greatest opportunity to apply their learning and take educational risks outside of the classroom with their project groups.

ENVIR 480 students viewing the composting toilets and learning about Loop Biosolids at the Bullitt Center.

  1. Avoid stifling creativity. I kept the fixed requirements for clients and students to a minimum. This approach does create a somewhat riskier learning environment. However, too many guidelines would have limited their autonomy and stifled their creativity.

Students in ENVIR 480 visiting an office space in the Bullitt Center.

  1. Require periodic peer and self-evaluations. This empowers the students to learn from each other through constructive feedback while promoting accountability.

I will take these lessons with me as I embark on Spring quarter with the knowledge that there are more lessons to be learned and many reasons to expand the reach of educational experiences focused on sustainable infrastructure to more students.

Sara Brostrom is an instructor in the University of Washington (UW) Program on the Environment and she is a graduate student in the UW School of Marine and Environmental Affairs.



Attend the Upcoming Low-carbon Space Heating Symposium at the UW Seattle Campus

April 4th, 2017 · No Comments · Energy

morgans_0By Scott Morgan Director of Sustainability at The Evergreen State College
Natural gas has been actively promoted as a ‘transition’ fuel in our national climate change work, and it’s certainly one of the cleanest burning fossil fuels. But the Puget Sound region has used natural gas for heating for decades, and many institutions with greenhouse gas reduction goals have been struggling to figure out the next step in that transition. We’re heating with ‘cleaner’ natural gas, but what’s next?
There are a few technologies that could appropriately replace natural gas for space heating in this region, but each has its own trade-offs that make it challenging to build an effective business case for changing out our existing infrastructure. In an effort to address these challenges, the sustainability offices at The Evergreen State College, the University of Washington, and Western Washington University are building upon our established Washington Higher Education Sustainability Coalition (WAHESC) relationships to collaboratively organize and host a regional symposium on that single question. What’s next for space heating?
Symposium participants will have the opportunity to learn about four possible space-heating options, one conservation approach (waste water heat recovery) and three heat generation technologies that are potentially feasible for large-scale commercial application in existing buildings – anaerobic digestion/renewable natural gas, biomass gasification, and heat pumps. As most facilities and operations managers are aware, none of these options are ideal for all cases. But, where we struggle to develop solutions on our own, we may find a greater strength and capacity in developing solutions as a group. This symposium is one such opportunity to begin information sharing, collaborative conversations, and innovative problem-solving on our common challenge.
We’re inviting facilities and operations managers, engineers, planning directors, and other interested parties to join us in a technical discussion of the opportunities and challenges for low to zero carbon space heating in the Puget Sound Region. Please join us:
·         Friday, May 12, 2017
·         8:30 am – 4:00 pm
·         Alder Hall, UW Seattle
More information may be found HERE ( If you’re interested in attending, please register HERE. (There is no cost for registration, but the costs of parking and lunch are on your own.)



How We Can Turn Railroads into a Climate Solution

March 24th, 2017 · 2 Comments · --Integrated Systems--, Energy, Transportation

Mazza 1cBy Patrick Mazza – Article originally featured on Grist

Railroads have become a nexus of controversy in recent years due to their role in transporting climate-twisting fossil fuels. But they could become a locomotive driving the growth of clean energy. That is the aim of a new proposal to electrify railroads, run them on renewable energy, and use rail corridors as electricity superhighways to carry power from remote solar and wind installations to population centers.

The proposal, called Solutionary Rail, has been developed by a team of rail experts, economists, and public interest advocates assembled by the Washington state–based Backbone Campaign. Bill McKibben writes in the foreword to the recently released Solutionary Rail book that he has “been following the debate over energy, transportation, and climate change since the late 1980s … So it’s hard to come up with an idea I haven’t come across before. Rail electrification, as proposed in this remarkable book, is that rarest of things: a genuinely new idea, and one that makes immediate gut sense.”


An activist movement, sometimes known as the “thin green line,” has grown up in the Northwest in recent years to resist coal and oil shipments through the region, between the rich fossil resources east of the Rockies and the growing markets of Asia. The Backbone Campaign, a group that develops innovative strategies and tactics to build grassroots democratic movements, has been enmeshed in this movement.

The movement has been successful in stopping many fossil fuel export facilities from being built along the Pacific Coast. But it’s largely been a defensive campaign rather than a proactive one. In 2013, a rail labor leader challenged Backbone Executive Director Bill Moyer to green a labor concept for modernizing rail lines in the northern states, a “yes” to accompany the “no.” Moyer took up the challenge, and the result is Solutionary Rail.

Rail electrification is common in other parts of the world. Around the globe, electricity serves nearly a quarter of railroad track miles and supplies over one-third of the energy that powers trains. But in the U.S., under 1 percent of tracks are electrified. That’s due to high upfront capitalization costs, an obstacle that publicly owned railroads in other nations do not face. Railroads in other countries also do not have to pay property taxes on electrification infrastructure, which U.S. railroads do.

Few industries are as well positioned as railroads to lead a transition to a clean economy. Unlike other heavy, long-haul transportation vehicles such as ships, planes, and semitrucks, trains can be easily electrified, and electricity is increasingly coming from clean sources such as sun and wind. Rail is already the most efficient form of ground transportation, and it has an unparalleled capacity to provide clean freight and passenger mobility.

Under the Solutionary Rail plan, electrification would be accomplished in conjunction with track modernization. Together, these would allow express freight service running above 80 miles per hour and high-speed passenger service up to 125 mph. Very high-speed passenger rail operates above 180 mph in Europe and Asia, and is being developed in California and the U.S. Northeast, but it generally requires dedicated tracks. Solutionary Rail’s more modest increase in speed is the economically practical option for most U.S. lines. Existing tracks can be upgraded, and freight and passenger trains can be accommodated on the same lines.

The proposal also includes running power transmission lines through the rail corridors. It’s currently difficult to get the rights-of-way needed to build new long-distance, high-capacity transmission lines, which means that some renewable energy, like wind power produced in the Great Plains, is stranded and can’t get to where it’s needed. But rail corridors are already being put to industrial use, so they could easily accommodate new power infrastructure, connecting renewable-energy-rich rural areas to big metropolitan areas.

To pay for all this, the Solutionary Rail team developed the concept of Steel Interstate Development Authorities, public agencies that would be able to raise low-cost capital from financial markets and take advantage of federal transportation dollars. SIDAs for different rail corridors would be created by interstate compacts and work in public-private partnerships with railroads. The electrification would remain under public ownership, managed by the SIDA, alleviating the property tax issue. Backbone is initially pushing a SIDA in the Northern Corridor, which has rail lines stretching from Chicago to the Northwest, to demonstrate the feasibility of electrification on lines mostly owned by BNSF, a property of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.

Rail in the U.S. is not a huge contributor to climate disruption — it’s responsible for only 2 percent of greenhouse gases from the nation’s transportation sector. But it could be a huge part of the climate solution. A cleaner, more robust railroad system could replace substantial amounts of truck traffic, while making intercity passenger service more reliable and competitive with highways and aviation. This could help railroads thrive without being reliant on transporting bulk shipments of fossil fuels. The Solutionary Rail strategy still relies on resistance movements to stop those shipments, but offers the “yes” to strengthen the “no.” That is why the proposal has drawn support from labor leaders: It would help railroad workers make a “just transition” away from fossil fuels.

The huge, public benefits of rail electrification justify a public expenditure. But electrification would also greatly benefit privately owned railroads, and so they must offer public benefits in return. One is labor justice. Solutionary Rail has adopted the justice agenda of Railroad Workers United, a group that unites rail labor across union lines. It includes good working and safety conditions. The Solutionary Rail plan also calls for right-of-way justice for native tribes, renegotiating easements where tribes have historic grievances.

With Solutionary Rail, the oldest form of mass mechanized transportation can create a track to 21st century clean transportation and become an engine for sustainably and broadly realized prosperity.

Patrick Mazza is an independent journalist-researcher-activist focused on climate, clean energy, and global sustainability, and coauthor of the new book Solutionary Rail. Mazza has more than one way of “working on the railroad.” He also was one of the Delta 5 oil train blockaders.


Infrastructure Reform Advances in the Washington State legislature

February 22nd, 2017 · 2 Comments · --Integrated Systems--

tedBy Ted Sturdevant – Center for Sustainable Infrastructure

First-of-its-kind legislation incorporating the new infrastructure investment tools promoted by CSI is advancing early in the 2017 Washington Legislature.

Northwest infrastructure agencies and utilities spend billions of dollars on our behalf every year to operate, maintain, and rebuild vital infrastructure. These water, transportation, energy, and waste cycling systems keep our economy and our communities working. Countless spending decisions by hundreds of local infrastructure agencies add up to enormous, enduring impact on Northwest communities, for the next generation and beyond.

Are we getting the best possible return-on-investment from this annual spending? Are our infrastructure ‘financial managers’ getting the most bang-for-the-buck in long-term value – financial, environmental, and social – for our communities? Are investment decisions guided by a coherent strategy that aims to build world-class, high-performance infrastructure? At CSI, on each of these questions, we believe there is significant room to improve the system and get the most out of infrastructure investments.

State policymakers can help in wide-ranging ways: they set policy, offer incentives, create rules and regulate performance, manage or invest directly in infrastructure systems, convene multi-agency partnerships to jointly fund programs, and more.

Washington’s legislature is right now considering legislation that takes an important first step to adopt a leaner, smarter infrastructure investment discipline. HB 1677, for example, charges a multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional “system improvement team” with pursuing a specific set of smart investment objectives. The bill also establishes a policy advisory team consisting of 4 legislators and the Governor’s budget director to work with the system improvement team over the next two years.

HB 1667, sponsored by Rep.  Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds was heard February 14th in the House Capital Budget Committee.  An identical “companion” bill, SB 5496 has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center.

Several bills on infrastructure have been introduced this session, offering a variety of roles the state might play.  While it’s too early to say what direction the legislature will go, it is CSI’s hope that whatever approach they land on, they include HB 1667’s process to make infrastructure programs work better and smarter.  By adopting early “value planning” that looks at all options before defaulting to traditional infrastructure, and by building long-term resilience and sustainability into project designs, we can maximize public value and minimize costs as we build the infrastructure of the 21st century.

Events at the legislature are unfolding quickly; here is an update from Friday, February 24th.

As we’ve reported, CSI has been convening a coalition called the Future of Washington Infrastructure group (FWI), and those discussions led to a vision for a “Public Works Trust Fund 2.0.”  That vision then informed the introduction of HB 1677, which provides new tools to the Public Works Board and creates a process for improving the system of infrastructure programs dealing with drinking water, wastewater and stormwater.  HB 1677 was heard in the House Capital Budget Committee on Feb. 14.  On Feb. 23, CSI was invited to participate in a meeting convened by Rep. Beth Doglio, vice chair of the committee, to work on a revised version of the bill.

We’re happy to report that the House does plan to advance a revised version of the bill, and that there is strong support for an ongoing Public Works program, and for the reforms advocated by CSI – reforms that would make the system smarter, more efficient, better coordinated and that would result in more sustainable, resilient and affordable infrastructure projects.  The modified bill will contain those provisions, and according to the committee chair, will be considered “necessary to implement the budget” (NTIB), which means that the bill is exempt from legislative cutoff dates.  The bill likely won’t move forward until the House is ready to move its overall budget proposal.

It was exciting to see the legislature engaged in a substantive conversation on how to make the system work better.  In the meeting, one person who runs a state infrastructure program, said “in the 12 years I’ve been doing this, we’ve never had this opportunity to talk to legislators about the barriers we face.

We applaud legislators for their efforts, and all the stakeholders who have put this proposal together.  We’ll wait to see the next draft of the bill, and while there is plenty of work to be done, we are encouraged by the support we’re seeing for improving the system.


The Water-Energy Nexus is the Next Big Thing: Three Case Studies from

February 18th, 2017 · No Comments · --Integrated Systems--, Energy, Water


By Chris van Daalen – Principal Investigator at The Code Innovations Database

Whether we’re talking people, ecosystems or the economy, what they say is true:  Water is Life.  From lead-polluted drinking water in Flint Michigan, to a moratorium on building in Whatcom County, Washington, it’s painfully clear how dependent all of us are on water infrastructure for safe clean drinking water, wash water, and yet more water to carry away our wastes.

What is harder to see, is that we also rely on energy infrastructure to deliver an uninterrupted flow of clean water.  For the most part Americans feel secure, but clear signs say we cannot assume future water supplies will be stable in light of a changing climate, evolving technology, and dependency on aging and obsolete infrastructure.

There are many facets to the water-energy nexus, more than can be covered in a short article. To comprehend just part of it in the real world, I want to focus on three case studies published on The Code Innovations Database, an online resource I manage for the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild.

US Department of Energy (DOE)

In 2014, the US DOE issued a report “The Water-Energy Nexus: Challenges and Opportunities” that details the many ways that “energy and water flows are intrinsically interconnected… due to the properties and characteristics of water that make it so useful for producing energy and the energy requirements to treat and distribute water for human use.”

Strategic Pillars

The report identifies six “Strategic Pillars” as the logical structure for their “long-standing” R&D efforts, and which they claim “lays the foundation for future efforts.”  Let’s hope that proves true!

Another seminal report on the Water-Energy Nexus is an extensive literature review published August 2013 by the Water in the West program at Stanford University2, which I would highly recommend for anyone who wants to gain a handle on this nexus.

Non-traditional water sources and treatment in Bellingham, WA


Most of us aren’t even aware of how much energy it takes to treat and transport water to our taps and toilets. I certainly wasn’t, not until green building innovator Dan Welch of [bundle] design studio opened my eyes with his net-zero energy, net-zero water “Birch Case Study home” in Bellingham, WA. This is the only home I know of within an incorporated city limits that was permitted to not connect to city water and sewer, by proving to code officials they had it covered. Welch and his family use harvested rainwater for drinking water and everything else. He designed an innovative “batch composting” toilet system that uses no water and safely fertilizes the garden. With no toilets to flush, they treat their own wastewater (mostly greywater) in a very small septic system.

His electrified ultra-efficient home produces all its own energy with solar panels. Not only that, but by being off the water grid he is helping the County save additional energy and money that would have been used to transport potable water to, and wastewater from his home to the treatment plant.chrisblog2

Bellingham and Whatcom County code officials approved his non-traditional approach because they’ve adopted State Rules that prescribe such systems.  Yet, most Washington cities don’t have Whatcom County’s water issues, nor it’s forward-thinking policies, and have not adopted these rules.  Which means innovators throughout the State still face significant barriers to non-traditional sources and treatment.  To understand how Welch achieved it, check out our “Birch Home” case studies on the Code Innovations Database.

The California Energy Commission estimates that nationally, it takes roughly 1,200 kWh of electricity per million gallons (kWH/MG) to deliver water to customers. Another 220 kWh/MG or so goes into potable water treatment.  Wastewater treatment is even more energy intensive, though it varies widely by type of treatment and size of plant, ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 kWh/MG water treated.

Alternative Energy for Wastewater Treatment


The Budd Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant in Olympia Washington treats about 12 MG/day, but uses less energy than comparable facilities, because they have a biogas cogeneration system that converts methane from its anaerobic digesters into enough heat and electricity to offset 100% of the facility’s space heating and office power needs. Leftover heat is transferred by underground pipes to the building across the street, a ”district energy” system that heats both buildings!  You can read more about it in the Code Innovations Database case study: Methane CoGen System at LOTT Alliance.

This biogas is a byproduct of the “solids” part of the wastewater, an untapped resource that treatment plants across the US could be using to offset energy needs. The US EPA estimates that biogas energy generation could provide about 50% of the power requirements of an average facility. Yet in 2006, only 7% of biosolids were used in this way, while nearly 40% was landfilled or incinerated (using even more energy)3.

Commercial Scale Human Waste Treatment and Water Reuse

chrisblog4Developers and City officials in Portland, Oregon have taken solutions like those in the Birch Home to scale. Hassalo on 8th is a mixed-use three-building project that spans four blocks in the City’s vibrant and growing Lloyd EcoDistrict area.  Three buildings share one of the largest natural organic recycling treatment systems in the US, treating all the wastewater (including human waste) which is reused for toilet flushing, mechanical cooling and below surface landscape irrigation in an urban setting.  Excess treated “blackwater” is returned back to the City’s aquifer with two dry injection wells, but only after it’s treated to Class A water standards.

The Water in the West report shows that reclaiming and recycling water for non-potable uses is well-established and accepted in many cities (e.g. industrial use or landscaping).  Recycling of wastewater back into potable water supplies however is much more controversial. The Code Innovations Database case study on this project points out that the district scale of this project, and high profile support from the City made this project possible.

In Conclusion

While the solutions represented by these cases may be nascent, while there are significant barriers to widespread adoption of truly sustainable, resilient and distributed infrastructure, there is a growing body of experience, evolving technology and a sense of urgency at the highest levels helping communities begin to grapple with the challenges posed by the water-energy nexus. For now, projects like those featured in our Database continue to lead the way through innovation. Now we must use this information to educate decision-makers and support action at the local and state levels to keep building momentum.

In Washington, encourage your County to adopt and use Department of Health Rules for rainwater harvesting for potable use, composting toilets and water conserving on-site sewage systems, and push for more research and demonstration projects, and better regulations.  In Oregon, learn about graywater reuse policies for indoor and outdoor use, and follow the work of Recode, a non-profit advocacy group based in Portland.

Meanwhile, check out 20 other related case studies in the Code Innovations Database, or submit a project if you know another we should profile!!

Chris van Daalen is Principal Investigator of the Code Innovations Database, an advocacy research program of the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild.  The Database documents permitting precedents and policy innovations, to provide a platform for public-private collaboration with the goal of accelerating adoption of high-performance green building. vanDaalen is a lifelong environmental activist and for the past 20 years a social enterprise consultant to “green economy” organizations and firms.  He has served the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild and its members for 11 years as volunteer Board Member and Education Coordinator.

1 Bauer, Diana et. al, US Department Energy, The Water-Energy Nexus: Challenges and Opportunities” June 2014, Washington, DC.
2 Water in the West, a joint program of Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and Bill Lane Center for the American West. “Water and Energy Nexus:  A Literature Review.” August 2013:  Stanford, CA
3 Parsons Corporation. “Emerging Technologies for Biosolids Management.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2006).



Green Power Partnership in Higher Education

February 9th, 2017 · No Comments · Energy

rhianna_tBy Rhianna Hruska – The Evergreen State College

In 2005, the student-driven clean energy campaign advocated for the creation of a green fee to fully cover renewable energy credits for The Evergreen State College.  A poll was sent to all students, and of the 28% that voted, 91% voted yes on paying for a campus green fee (1).  Evergreen students made it clear that they saw sustainability as a priority.  The passage of the clean energy fee made Evergreen the 2nd higher education institution in Washington state to have a green fee, with Western Washington University being the first.


Solar Array at The Evergreen State College (All Photo Credits to Shauna Bittle)

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Power Partnership, renewable energy certificates (RECs), also known as green tags or renewable energy credits, are issued when one megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity is generated and delivered to the electricity grid from a renewable energy resource.” (2)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s College and University Green Power Challenge acknowledges higher education institutions that are Green Power Partners.  With 100% of its energy usage covered by renewable energy credits, Evergreen consistently ranks top of the Cascade Collegiate Conference in the challenge (3).  RECs have grown in popularity and many higher education institutions across the nation purchase RECs to offset their electricity usage.  Along with colleges and universities, non-profits and private businesses also purchase RECs to be EPA Green Power Partners.

The Evergreen clean energy fee prompted a conversation about where Evergreen’s RECs would be purchased from.  The college is interested in buying local RECs if the opportunity arises.  Puget Sound Energy (PSE) currently has four wind farm locations in Washington state and a fifth is slated to be built by December 2018.  PSE’s Skookumchuck Wind Energy project would house 52-turbines in the southeast corner of Thurston County and northeast Lewis County4.  These turbines would generate up to 180 megawatts of power (4).  The completion of this wind farm would provide Evergreen with the opportunity to purchase local RECs.

Along with offsetting electricity with renewable energy credits, the clean energy fee is used to fund sustainability projects on campus that promotes Evergreen as a living learning laboratory. One example of a clean energy fee project is the solar array on top of the library building, which has provided research opportunities to students.  The clean energy fund gives the students an opportunity to bring their ideas to life and give back to their campus community.

As dedicated Green Power Partners, higher education institutions have been given the opportunity to be long term models for purchasing renewable energy credits.  The success of the Green Power Partnership program at Evergreen and in other higher education institutions could influence the decisions of other colleges, businesses, and non-profits to commit to the Green Power Partnership.




Portland’s Jade District: One Neighborhood’s Lens on a New Infrastructure Vision

January 23rd, 2017 · No Comments · --Integrated Systems--, Water

duncantBy Duncan Hwang  – Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO)

As the Northwest’s water infrastructure continues to evolve, how might changes at the industry level impact people on the neighborhood level? The Jade District, located in Southeast Portland, can serve as an excellent example. It is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the state of Oregon, a vibrant community that currently serves as a landing spot for many immigrants. The district features amazing cuisine, close knit communities, and some strong local institutions. However, incomes are lower than average and some key infrastructure is lacking, leading to stark economic and health disparities.

According to latest data, about 47% are people of color and about 55% of residents are categorized as low income. 15% live in linguistic isolation. In terms of the built environment, the neighborhood is known for incomplete streets and few parks to speak of. The US Forest Service recommended level of coverage for urban tree canopy is 40%. Our neighborhood averages just 21%, with some areas even less. This leads to a pronounced urban heat island effect and stormwater management challenges. On the not so distant horizon, the threat of involuntary displacement due to rising property values looms large, as rents are continuing to increase and Portland’s urban core expands.

If the Jade District of 2040 is going to be a healthy, equitable, and sustainable neighborhood, a holistic approach to community development will be critical over the next two decades. Water infrastructure alone is not going to allow the community to realize our shared vision for the neighborhood, but equitable implementation of comprehensive strategy that includes water infrastructure will lead to the outcomes we hope to achieve.


First, the built environment of the neighborhood will look different. If green infrastructure is prioritized, agencies and utilities will have found ways to integrate more deeply into the community, investing for co-benefits such as local economic vitality, resilience, carbon savings, and recreation and beauty. There will be higher tree canopy, public parks, and small scale water infrastructure sites. Neighborhood residents have been asking for spaces to bring their grandchildren, practice tai chi, or garden. While this is what they’re asking for, it just so happens that green infrastructure leads to better water quality, air quality, flood control, public health as well.


As the neighborhood becomes a more pleasant place to live, the consequences of this desirability must be addressed so that current residents are able to stay and enjoy these new benefits. This will require strong public planning, deep investment in affordable housing, and a focus on the creation of green jobs that are filled by local residents. Smart investment not only helps control rate increases and keep vital water services affordable for residents and local businesses – Infrastructure spending translates into good-paying local jobs. Decentralized systems require more maintenance and testing and this can benefit economically challenged communities. Efficiency and equity are enhanced if neighborhood residents are the ones filling these jobs. Building and maintaining new distributed micro-infrastructure, from constructed wetlands to cisterns and building-scale treatment systems, will require both construction and maintenance workers. The engagement of building owners in water management will set up opportunities for new revenue opportunities in public-private collaborations. As rents continue to rise, so must the income of our residents. I would expect many more of our residents to be filling good quality jobs at our local utilities, construction firms, or with government agencies.


Over the next decades, special care must be taken to plan for unknowns. Disaster preparedness is typically lacking in the most vulnerable neighborhoods. Smart investment helps vital water services resist catastrophic breakage and recover more quickly when earthquake or climate disaster strikes. However, neighborhood resilience is much more than infrastructure. True resilience comes from an organized community, able to work together during a crisis. This will require additional care to strengthen social networks, especially in diverse neighborhoods. Immigration trends must also be carefully considered. Climate immigrants and refugees will migrate to areas where their communities already exist. This means that neighborhoods such as the Jade District may see a larger influx than other communities in the coming decades. The Jade District of 2040 has planned for these and is prepared.

At the end of the day, how this neighborhood will look will really depend on the values and principles of leaders in the world of developing water infrastructure. I would expect that over the coming decades, the partnership with the public will be continually strengthened. Before anything is built, decision-making processes and authentic community engagement must also look different. In working in a community that is limited English proficiency, decision-makers really must learn to listen to community no matter their language or cultural background. Neighborhood residents aren’t going to be talking about stormwater management, public utilities, or carbon savings. They are going to be talking about lack of parks, how expensive rent is, and how difficult it is to get their kids to school or get to their jobs. Decision-makers should take care to listen these concerns and adapt their strategies in their spheres of influence to truly serve the community.