Eastern Municipal Water District (EMWD) provides water, wastewater, and recycled water to more than 825,000 people in Riverside County, California, and in so doing uses more than 100 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy a year. In order to save money, diversify its energy portfolio, and reduce emissions, EMWD is moving forward with an ambitious set of solar power installations that by the end of 2020 will produce around 58.6 million kWh per year.
In this interview, EMWD Senior Director of Administrative Services Dan Howell tells Municipal Water Leader about the district’s renewable energy initiative and the lessons it holds for other municipal water service providers.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Dan Howell: I’m the senior director of administrative services and have now been at EMWD for 28 years. My background is in the contracts and procurement field. Fairly early in my career here, I took a detour into operations, which is how I got involved in energy management. At the time, the district was quite a bit smaller and we didn’t really have anyone keeping track of our energy expenditures. That was also the time when electric deregulation in California was occurring, around 1996. As deregulation moved forward, we needed someone to focus on the changes, and I received a crash course in all things energy management. I subsequently returned to the contracts side of our district as a department director but retained responsibility for energy management. The administration and business aspects of energy had become much more prominent in the wake of deregulation and were becoming as important as the engineering and operational components. For several years, I also managed procurement and contracts, customer service, meters, fleet services, billing, and records management, among other things, until about 2 years ago, when we realized that we needed a dedicated resource to manage our energy activities. That’s when we created a position and brought Sam Robinson, our energy program manager, into the department. Sam handles our day-to-day energy management responsibilities and coordinates energy-saving projects and initiatives throughout the organization.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about EMWD and its services.
Dan Howell: We are a water, wastewater, and recycled water agency covering the western third of Riverside County. Our service area is 555 square miles. We have four operating regional water reclamation facilities with tertiary treatment that average 45 million gallons of wastewater per day. We also operate two water filtration plants, 86 water pumping facilities, 16 domestic wells, and 82 storage facilities serving our potable water customers.
Municipal Water Leader: How much energy does EMWD consume on a yearly basis?
Dan Howell: In 2018, the district purchased just over 95 million kWh of electricity from our primary utility, Southern California Edison. We self-generated about 24 million kWh.
Municipal Water Leader: What are the district’s existing renewable energy sources?
Dan Howell: Back in 2009, we implemented our first biogas fuel cell at our Moreno Valley Regional Water Reclamation Facility. It is a 900 kilowatt (kW) unit. That was our first significant step into renewable generation. We followed that up in 2012 with a second biogas fuel cell installation at our Perris Valley Regional Water Reclamation Facility, this one with an output of 600 kW.
We have always aimed to have a flexible energy portfolio. We are a significant customer of the Southern California Gas Company, and we operate a large number of internal combustion engine–driven pumps throughout our service area. The regulatory environment here in Southern California is making it increasingly challenging to operate internal combustion engines, which motivated us to further diversify our energy portfolio by getting into renewables. Most directly, our board of directors established a strategic plan initiative in 2016 focusing on energy independence. That involved cost-effectively planning and implementing local renewable energy projects with sufficient generation to meet the district’s entire net energy demands while minimizing our carbon footprint. We updated our triennial strategic plan in 2019. Our current objective is to plan and implement cost-effective energy projects and programs to optimize EMWD’s energy portfolio and to minimize its carbon footprint.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about EMWD’s planned solar projects?
Dan Howell: In 2014, we implemented a 500 kW solar installation at our headquarters facility here in Perris. We refer to that as our phase 1 project. In addition to that, we operate microturbine generation at the headquarters facility. That generation is not renewable—the microturbines don’t operate on biofuel, they operate on natural gas—but we do recover heat off of those microturbines and use them to produce over 100 tons of chilled cooling for our administrative headquarters as well.
We followed our phase 1 project in 2015 with our phase 2 solar projects. Those projects effectively installed 1 megawatt (MW) of solar generation at each of our four operating wastewater treatment plants as well as our desalination facility in Sun City.
We are now working on our phase 3 project, which includes five additional installations that will generate a significant amount of electrical power. These facilities add a combined total of 16 MW of solar generation to our portfolio. The phase 3 project currently underway is being done under a power purchase agreement. Phases 1 and 2 were directly funded by the district.
Municipal Water Leader: What does that mean in practice? Are you going to own the phase 3 projects?
Dan Howell: Phases 1 and 2 were capital expenditures— capital projects that the district built, paid for, and owned from the beginning. Our solar phase 3 projects are being installed under a power-purchase agreement whereby a third party, REC Solar, owns the assets, leases property from us, and sells us power for the duration of the contract. There are opportunities for the district to procure those assets at different points over the course of that term. Ultimately, we may choose to own those assets ourselves. Today, it’s purely a power purchase agreement.
Municipal Water Leader: How is phase 3 being funded?
Dan Howell: Energy procured under phase 3 will be paid for through operating costs, no different from how we pay our utility bills. Purchasing power from REC Solar will be just like paying our Southern California Edison bill.
Municipal Water Leader: When phase 3 is complete, how much of the district’s entire energy needs will its solar projects cover?
Dan Howell: Our phase 3 project is anticipated to produce approximately 34.3 million kWh per year when all five installations are completed in 2020. Our existing solar-generation and fuel-cell operations produce approximately 24.3 million kWh of renewable energy a year. The combined total is anticipated to be about 58.6 million kWh per year. For comparison, we used about 116.5 million kWh of energy in 2018, including electricity purchased from Edison and electricity from our natural gas–driven microturbines.
Municipal Water Leader: Why is a solar power project of this nature appropriate for a municipal water provider?
Dan Howell: Energy source flexibility is key in the market and in the world we live in today. To have all your eggs in one basket is not the best solution. Also, our board of directors sees the value of the cost savings that solar power provides to our community and ratepayers, as well as its environmental benefits. That message has been consistently reflected in our strategic plans over the last 6 years.
Municipal Water Leader: What advice do you have for other municipal water districts considering similar projects?
Dan Howell: Given the size of our organization and the number of activities that we have going, it made sense to establish a dedicated position to manage and coordinate our energy activities. Having a dedicated set of eyes responsible for managing an organization’s energy portfolio and the related moving pieces is important. Specifically with regard to renewable projects, I would advise districts to use a good consultant who will keep apprised of the ever-changing rules and developments in the market. Things today move quickly!
Municipal Water Leader: Is there anything else you wanted to discuss before we wrap up?
Dan Howell: In addition to the projects we’ve discussed, EMWD has been an active participant in demand-response programs over many years. These programs provide financial incentives to discontinue or adjust the use of energy at certain times. This not only reduces operating costs for the district, but helps the state avoid the construction of costly generation to meet peak demands. We have approximately 5 MW of power enrolled in demand-response programs today. For perspective on our operations, we currently have 253 Southern California Edison electric accounts with about 40 Southern California Gas Company accounts as well. We have quite a few facilities, and our service area is only 40 percent built out at this time.