Looking At the Future of Infrastructure

This is guest post by Bill Eller, vice president, business development at HomeServe.

As Congress and the president eye a bipartisan effort at improving our aging infrastructure, the time for a wide-reaching infrastructure program to rebuild water, electric, transportation and information infrastructure, is now.

The need for locally-based planning and financial partnerships, not only to repair and maintain our infrastructure, but to make significant improvements through innovation, is why the National League of Cities has announced its Rebuild With Us initiative.

In order to meet the goal of innovation and improvement, municipal officials will have to draw on the expertise and knowledge of a large cross section of disciplines. We have the information, skills and ability to meet these challenges – if we work together.

With that in mind, here are four articles on the future of our infrastructure that explore solutions that may work in your city.

Scientific American: What China Can Learn from New York City About Wastewater Management by Danielle Neighbour and Gillian Zwicker

This article is directed at Chinese cities seeing a huge influx of residents. By using anaerobic bacteria to turn sludge into methane gas, cities are lowering operations costs, reducing material sent to landfills and generating revenue from the sale of this energy source. In addition, the by-product of this process, or digestates, can be disinfected and used as fertilizer.

“This process allows anaerobic bacteria to ‘eat away’ the organics in sludge, generating methane biogas as they do so. This methane — a notorious greenhouse gas that causes 25 percent of man-made global warming— can be captured in vessels called digesters, preventing it from entering the atmosphere. The captured methane can then be used as a source of energy in the form of heat, renewable natural gas or even vehicle biofuel.

Thanks to a partnership with National Grid, the captured methane will soon be productively used as renewable natural gas (RNG), enough RNG to heat 5,200 homes and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 90,000 metric tons CO2 equivalent.”

The DCist: How DC is Working to Keep Raw Sewage Out of Rock Creek Park by Jacob Fenston

Combined Sewer Overflow is a problem for many cities, especially older ones. The cost to separate these “grey infrastructure” sewers into two different systems is prohibitive. Many cities are turning to green infrastructure answers like permeable pavement, rain barrels and using landscaping to mimic how nature filters groundwater.

“Before most of Piney Branch disappeared under pavement, the ‘lusty’ creek drained storm water from more than 2,000 acres of forests and fields. The land naturally absorbed much of the rain, and the network of streams and creeks filtered water as it made its way to Rock Creek, the Potomac, and finally the Chesapeake Bay. Now, all that water is instead funneled into underground pipes.”

Civic Story: Green Infrastructure is Coming of Age and It’s Time to Demystify It by Donna Liu

Green Infrastructure offers many benefits: recharging groundwater, filtering pollution from bodies of water and increasing climate change resilience. Despite this, there are obstacles to adopting it, including negative perceptions or unfamiliarity among residents, municipal codes that conflict with green initiatives or a need for interdepartmental cooperation and open-mindedness at the municipal level.

“No matter whether it’s the single square mile of Hoboken, or the five sprawling boroughs of New York, each planner described undertaking a painstaking block-by-block assessment of how to correct the legacy ‘grey infrastructure’ of pipes, pumps and ditches, which is how most cities have managed storm water runoff for as long as anyone can remember.”

CitiesSpeak: What Will It Take to Rebuild Modern Water Infrastructure in the U.S. by Bill Eller

Our aging infrastructure is reaching the end of its usable life, and it will take some creative financing and innovative thinking to create the water infrastructure of tomorrow. This is best and most easily achieved through community buy-in, which can be achieved through community engagement, dedicating resources to educate residents and understanding what drives those who will be most impacted by the change.

“Innovation is, by its nature, aspirational, and it can be difficult to translate to engineering, budgeting and policy implementation. There may be a cultural gap among stakeholders which will require community engagement efforts and dedicated staff and funding to promote innovation.”

Our government leaders aren’t the only ones who have noticed the looming infrastructure crisis – business and industry leaders have seen the writing on the wall as well. For example, Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan Chase CEO, addressed America’s infrastructure failings in his annual letter to stockholders.

He wrote: “One study examined the effect of poor infrastructure on efficiency (for example, poorly constructed highways, congested airports with antiquated air traffic control systems, aging electrical grids and old water pipes) and concluded this could all be costing us more than $200 billion a year. Philip K. Howard, who does some of the best academic work on America’s infrastructure, estimates it would cost $4 trillion to fix our aging infrastructure — and this is less than it would cost not to fix it. In fact, a recent study by Business Roundtable found that every dollar spent restoring our infrastructure system to good repair and expanding its capacity would produce nearly $4 in economic benefits. What happened to that ‘can-do’ nation of ours?”

Our nation can do this – not only to reap the economic benefits, but for the health and safety of our citizens. There are many obstacles, but none we cannot overcome with ingenuity, critical thinking and partnerships. The time is right to rebuild America’s infrastructure.

The NLC Service Line Warranty Program partners with municipalities to educate residents about their responsibility for private-side water and sewer infrastructure and offer affordable repair plans for failing pipes. For more information, visit www.utilitysp.net.

bill eller headshotAbout the author: Bill Eller currently serves as Vice President, Business Development at HomeServe. He is responsible for working with municipalities to educate and develop the best program options for their residents.