Driving Sustainability: How Compressed Natural Gas Can Fuel a Cleaner Future

I believe our commitment to sustainability is critical across all sectors. We can all help build the foundation for a sustainable future.

- Nicholas DeBenedictis, Chairman, President and CEO of Aqua America in a commentary titled “Driving Sustainability: How Compressed Natural Gas Can Fuel a Cleaner Future published* in the spring issue of Energy & Infrastructure magazine 

Companies all across America are evaluating how to reduce their environmental impact as it becomes clearer that we all need to take action to protect our environment for future generations. For some, this might mean using recycled materials for packaging, developing safer materials, using alternative fuel sources or streamlining operations to reduce waste. Private utilities, such as water companies, are no exception.

Water and energy share a close relationship – every process of the water system requires energy from initial treatment, delivery through pipes, the transportation of resources, and service representatives to keep systems up-to-date and address problems. Weighing in at eight pounds per gallon, keeping America’s water systems flowing is no small feat.

At Aqua America, we are pursuing different avenues to do our part. For instance, we are investing in vehicles for our fleet that will run on clean-burning compressed natural gas(CNG). CNG fuel can replace gasoline and diesel fuel and produces less undesirable air emissions when used. It is safer than other fuels in the event of a spill, because natural gas is lighter than air and dispenses quickly when released. 

Supplementing the environmental benefits, CNG is credited with creating more than 88,000 jobs in Pennsylvania to date, enhancing air quality and lowering energy costs, all while generating more than $389 million in state and local tax revenue.

At Aqua, we led the charge to utilize this resource nearly two decades ago. Aqua purchased its first bi-fuel pick-up truck in 1997. Today, we continue to add new vehicles to our fleet and plan to have a full fleet of CNG-fueled vehicles within the next five years.

To prepare for our upcoming transition to a full CNG fleet, we built a time-fill station at Aqua’s Springfield, Pa., operations center last year and we are working to install time-fill in four additional nearby operations centers. You can learn more about how natural gas vehicles operate here.

We also announced last week the receipt of a $225,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Act 13 fund. The grant will fund the purchase of nine dump trucks that run off of CNG to add to our growing alternative energy fleet. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett awarded the grant as a part of $7.7 million in total funding given to 25 companies and organizations in the state for natural gas vehicle conversion.

In 2013, Aqua received an Alternative Fuels Incentive Grant (AFIG) of $86,812 from the DEP for the purchase of 14 new CNG-fueled vans. Aqua also received two grants for approximately $70,000 for infrastructure and plans to install private fueling stations at its West Chester and Willow Grove Operations Centers. To date, we have invested $675,000 in CNG through vehicle purchases and infrastructure upgrades, including the construction of slow-fill fueling stations.

Our new CNG vans will be used to serve water customers in the inspection of pipeline restoration. So if you see us driving around, give us a honk or a wave!

* Access the full commentary from Nick DeBenedictis in the Spring Issue of Energy & Infrastructure magazine

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Water for Elephants

Ann Lewis has been fascinated by elephants – or “ellies” as she affectionately calls them – ever since she was a child.

Before she joined Aqua’s Human Resources Department and became responsible for employee training and development, Ann began a personal mission to educate the public on the ivory trade crisis and elephant welfare.

For several years, Ann has supported the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a field organization in Kenya dedicated to rescuing orphaned elephants wandering alone in the wild after their families - tragically - have been killed by poachers for their tusks. These orphans are the youngest victims of the poaching crisis. She will be traveling to Africa this Fall to visit the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and to also go on a safari, where she is excited about seeing wild elephants in their natural habitat.

Last year, Ann had the opportunity to volunteer at the world-renowned sanctuary, Elephant Nature Park in Thailand, where she personally interacted with elephants. This experience was life-changing and strengthened her already deep passion for saving elephants from extinction.

After her trip to Thailand, Ann participated in the International March for Elephants, held in Washington, D.C. last year. The march was as part of the iWorry campaign organized by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. It was there that Ann and fellow activists decided to form Elephants DC, a non-profit organization, which aims to end the ivory trade and promote elephant welfare through education, advocacy and awareness.

Ann is also an active member of Animal ACTivists of Philly, where she protests the use of captive elephants in circuses.

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Ebb and Flow: Managing the Aging Water Infrastructure

All across America we have uninhibited access to clean and safe water. We often take this for granted because it is so accessible. Think of all the things you and your family use water for each and every day.

At the end of the day, it is estimated that the average American family uses 300 gallons of water at the cost of just one penny per gallon. Our water infrastructure is what makes all of this possible. However, it’s quickly becoming clear that our infrastructure is headed for trouble.

Most underground water pipes are expected to last up to 100 years. Unfortunately, America has over 700,000 miles of aging water pipes, including many of which are still in service well beyond their useful life. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) believes the necessary repairs to these water pipes are projected to cost $384 billion. Funding these repairs is complicated by the fact that the water industry is the most fragmented within our nation’s utility industry.

 

Currently we have 53,000 individual water systems that serve relatively small populations. The EPA found that more than 83 percent of them supply fewer than 3,300 people. Municipalities own the majority of these systems, but nearly 15 percent are privately owned. Both types of water system owners struggle to maintain their systems due to tight budgets and limited resources. Many of these water systems are falling behind because they cannot afford upgrades and/or they don’t have the resources to meet the increasingly rigid environmental and health regulations.

The good news is there are at least two solutions that can help get our water infrastructure where it needs to be. One such solution is a public-private partnership (PPP). Through this type of partnership, private funds are more readily available to municipalities to update infrastructure and invest in improvements and renovations to their aging water systems. Even better, the funds brought in through a PPP benefit more than just the water companies and consumers.

For example, the municipality of West Chester, PA entered a PPP back in 1996 when they were faced with needing to drastically increase water rates to afford a $15 million upgrade. They sold their system for $25 million and used the revenue to make the necessary upgrade, as well as retire existing debt and fund a desperately needed parking garage.

The second possible solution is an operations and maintenance (O&M) contract. An O&M contract focuses more on the day-to-day required maintenance of water systems. The private entity in this contract takes on routine tasks necessary to operate and maintain the utility in exchange for a service fee. One continuing success story is in Horsham, PA. The Horsham Water Authority began an O&M contract in 1997 that they have renewed annually since then. They’ve also expanded it to include additional services like water treatment, meter operations and system maintenance and repairs.

Maintaining clean and safe water is not just a goal, it’s a necessity. However, the government cannot bear all the costs of making these necessary repairs, nor should it have to. Teaming up with private water companies will save our infrastructure and keep clean water flowing to our taps. 

More Information: 

Keep It Flowing: Maintaining Municipal Water Systems

More PPP success stories here

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Harvesting the Importance of Water

At work, Regional Compliance Manager Michael Melton ensures that Aqua’s water and wastewater systems follow North Carolina and federal laws, but he spends most of his free time working on his two-acre farm.

Many evenings, I come home, and my wife Wendy and I gather our five children and work on the farm until dark," Michael says. “I’m a hard worker by nature, so I don’t like to go home and turn on the television. I’d rather be outside spending time with the kids. We put in 10 to 15 hours a week on the farm, and I rely on them to help out — even my youngest pitches in by gathering eggs and picking beans.”

In addition to providing quality family time, the farm serves a practical purpose. “With groceries being so expensive — and with my sons being big eaters — the eggs from our chickens help keep our grocery bill down. The farm gives us broccoli, lettuce, potatoes, onions, corn, beans, peppers, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, watermelons and cantaloupes. We also make our own bath soap and laundry detergent. As prices continue to rise, many people are looking for cost-efficient ways to provide healthy food for their families.

But amid the family's agricultural successes are times when Mother Nature doesn’t play nice. “Every year there’s some sort of obstacle,” says Michael. “If you’re in a drought, you have to keep enough water on the crops or you’ll lose them. Sometimes you get a good early crop and feel like you’re ahead of the game until a hailstorm comes and ruins it, which is always hard. One year we had a bumper crop of corn and lost at least a third of it because of tornadoes, hail and bad storms. We’ve dealt with all of the problems that go along with having a farm.

On the job, Michael travels the state, guiding regulatory compliance for 702 community well systems and 61 wastewater treatment plants. “Both in the water and wastewater areas, regulations have become more stringent; they’re ever-changing,” he says. Across North Carolina, Aqua tests approximately 16,000 to 17,000 water samples every year.

Now and then, Michael's colleagues at Aqua benefit from his success on the farm.

Harvesting the crops is an exciting time, and when we have extra it’s a great blessing to be able to give some to my co-workers,” he says.

 

 

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40,000 Trees And Counting

Whether it’s planting trees, sampling aquatic organisms with high school students, helping a watershed association with their stream clean-ups, or speaking with community groups – Aqua’s environmental affairs team takes every opportunity to enlist other watershed stakeholders as advocates for the stream.

The watershed in Southeast Pennsylvania is hundreds of square miles that drain into Aqua’s raw-water sources. There are nine rivers and streams monitored and protected by a team of Aqua’s environmental specialists. Robert Kahley and Craig Marleton are on call 24/7 and must react quickly to identify any potential dangers to our water supply.

Reacting quickly to prevent pollutants – like fuel and chemical spills – from entering Aqua’s water-system intake has both obvious and immediate benefits, but the environmental affairs team considers their proactive efforts an equally important investment in the long-term protection of our water supply.

 

For example, over the last decade, Aqua’s TreeVitalize Watersheds initiative has recruited volunteers to plant 40,000 trees and shrubs in hundreds of areas along stream banks in the Delaware Valley.  As they grow along the banks of drinking-water sources, trees naturally offer several layers of protection from contaminants. Recently, the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society presented the Binney Award to Aqua for TreeVitalize at the PHS Philadelphia Flower Show. The award, named for the first president of the society, is given to a company that exemplifies environmental stewardship, a tenet of PHS’s mission.

The Perkiomen Watershed Conservancy has been receiving TreeVitalize grants for many years, and they have become the core of our fall restoration projects,” explains Conservation Coordinator for Perkiomen Watershed Conservancy Krista Scheirer. “These projects not only lead to better water and habitat quality; they help educate thousands of our volunteers and local residents on protecting our watershed, which has an even greater impact.”

Despite the success of TreeVitalize, Tony Fernandes, who manages the environmental affairs team, explains that protecting the watershed is a long-term process. “Any stream-bank repair project we complete fixes only a tiny fraction of the total stream length.  It would be impossible to measure the benefit of repairing a 500-foot stretch of steam bank along a 25-mile-long stream, and it will take many years for the 5,000 trees we plant this year to become large enough to form a mature canopy and provide the full storm-water filtering capacity, nutrient uptake, temperature control, and erosion protection to the stream.”

There are powerful long-term benefits to doing all these proactive efforts. After all, Aqua has delivered high-quality water to our customers for more than 125-years, a legacy we plan to protect and enhance for the future.  

 

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