MnTAP helps Altura explore energy-saving opportunities at their wastewater treatment facility

City of Altura among several Minnesota cities saving money and energy in wastewater treatment facilities

You may not know this, but wastewater treatment facilities use a huge amount of energy—usually 20-35% of a municipality’s total energy costs, but in many communities the cost can rise to a whopping 60%. Thus, wastewater facilities offer great potential for savings, since the majority are typically neither designed nor operated with energy efficiency as a priority.

With recent help of the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Rural Water Association, the City of Altura is on track to save an estimated $4,680 per year—and potentially as much as $14,000 per year—while being assured that the city’s water quality is maintained. Keep reading for their story, and go even further to see highlights from other cities around the state.

In 2017 the City of Altura was selected to be part of a project to reduce energy use in Minnesota waste water treatment plants funded by the US DOE and executed by the University of Minnesota and several other state agencies. Altura’s inclusion in this project resulted in an engineering assessment they received, free of charge, from MnTAP (Minnesota Technical Assistance Program). Worth several thousand dollars, the assessment showed there was a potential for significant cost and energy savings to the city. Through cautious implementation and testing these energy saving measures are proceeding slowly so as to assure the area’s surface water quality.

Getting started: The whole process began in February of 2017 when a Winona County intern, accompanied by the Southeast CERT (Clean Energy Resource Team) staff member, stopped by to visit Dan Horvat, Altura’s Maintenance Engineer. Winona County and CERTs, were partnering on a grant, received by the Sustain Winona Partnership, to promote the use of free energy benchmarking software for public buildings as an energy saving tool. As Horvat listened to their presentation, he noted that what he really wished he could obtain was an engineering study for the city’s waste water aeration system. He suspected that his plant had more capacity than what was currently needed, and that newer pumps used significantly less energy, but knew the city couldn’t afford thousands of dollars to hire an engineering firm.

Finding technical assistance: Luckily, Chris Meyer, Coordinator for Southeast CERT which is located at the University of Minnesota Extension, was aware of a University resource called the Minnesota Technical Assistance Program (MnTAP). Through MnTAP the University shares its engineering expertise by providing free assistance to communities and businesses across the state on reducing energy and water use. What the CERTs coordinator didn’t know was that that same week MnTAP had put out a call to find ten Minnesota waste water treatment facilities that would consider implementing cost-effective changes to reduce energy costs, the work for which would be funded by a DOE grant. Altura became one of the participants, and engineers John Vanyo and A J. Van den Berghe from the University of Minnesota were on-site just weeks later. The team toured the aeration ponds, pumps, and power supply. They spent several hours sorting through files to locate the original design and recommissioning documents for the waste water treatment plant.

Several months later the MnTAP engineers came back with a recommendation. The closure of the Altura turkey plant had left the wastewater treatment facility with excess capacity, which MnTAP felt could allow Altura to shut down 6 of the 10 aeration pumps at the facility’s ponds. These pumps run constantly and consume lots of energy. Shutting them down has the potential to save $14,000 annually and reduce electricity use by 173,000 Kw/hr a year. But these pumps are essential to the plant’s cleanup processes, putting oxygen in the water and maintaining a fairly complex balance of elements to keep sewage eating microorganism alive.

The next part of Altura’s story comes back to the importance of clean water. Two of the pumps have been shut down, with estimated annual savings of $4,680, but the rest will be removed from service only if testing indicates that the changes will not hinder the plant’s ability to effectively clean the wastewater. Altura is a member of the non-profit Minnesota Rural Water Association (MRWA), which provides training and technical assistance related to water and waste water systems for hundreds of Minnesota municipalities. An MRWA technician is scheduled for a free testing visit to Altura in February of 2018. As Dan describes it, MWRA staff will drill into the frozen aeration pools to take samples of the sludge from the bottom of the ponds. If these tests indicate that the ponds are still properly cleaning the water, then a couple more aerators will be shut down in the spring. The process will be repeated the following February, phasing in the pump shutdowns only if testing results are satisfactory. It may take a few years for the city to realize all potential cost savings, but Altura’s residents can feel secure that these changes won’t have adverse effects on the local surface waters.

Take action in your own community: For communities or businesses interested in energy and cost reductions while promoting stewardship of clean water, both MnTAP and CERTs have a wealth of no-cost and low-cost of resources at their disposal. The Waste Water DOE grant program is now closed but MnTAP can share what was learned and still provide free assistance for other types of assessments. Cities can also learn more about the WWTP benchmarking capabilities of B3.

More case studies highlight energy efficiency at Minnesota wastewater treatment plants

Wastewater treatment plants (WWTP) operate in approximately 600 communities in Minnesota. Energy can account for 25-40% of the operating budgets of wastewater utilities. Through a U.S. Department of Energy grant, the Minnesota Department of Commerce, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and the Minnesota Technical Assistance Program worked to capture energy efficiency opportunities in the wastewater sector by providing tools and technical assistance to small and midsized facilities across the state. Through the facility assessments completed over the course of this grant, a multitude of low-cost, no-cost energy efficiency opportunities were implemented that reduced WWTP energy use between 5-30% and saved each plant an average of $13,000 in annual energy costs. The project team has published new case studies that highlight these energy- and cost-saving opportunities at Minnesota wastewater facilities, including:

For more information on wastewater treatment efficiency, please visit the MnTAP project website and the B3 Wastewater Treatment Plants page.

Recent GreenStep Cities workshop on wastewater energy-saving opportunities



Local Government Energy Action About the Local Government Energy Action Series:

This effort tells the stories of Minnesota municipalities, counties, and schools and the tangible results of their energy-saving efforts to inspire others to take their own actions. See all stories in this series >>


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