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City of Grand Rapids Water Resource Recovery Facility: Demonstrating Leadership in Sustainability Through Innovation and Collaboration

In 2016, the Utility of the Future Today (UotFT) recognition program for wastewater treatment agencies was launched jointly by the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), the Water Environment Federation (WEF), The Water Research Foundation (WRF), and the WateReuse Association. The UotFT program provides recognition for water sector utilities of all sizes that demonstrate leadership in sustainability and resilience.

WRRF’s goal in pursuing the UotFT designation is to motivate and engage a greater amount of staff to improve the agency’s energy and sustainability performance and generate more support to justify and implement significant sustainability measures. Based on their accomplishments and collaboration within their community, the WRRF achieved the UotFT designation in the program’s first year, which generated credibility for the ESD and the City of Grand Rapids.

In 2017, the City of Grand Rapids adopted a five-year sustainability plan that set specific targets for energy reduction and increased resource recovery. Two years later, the City replaced it with a four-year strategic plan to guide the work of all departments. The strategic plan standardizes values across all City departments to support a common mission: elevate quality of life through excellent City services. The values are:

  • Accountability – Always acting with integrity and transparency and being responsible for what we do and say
  • Collaboration – Working together in partnership with others; teamwork
  • Customer service – Professionally serving those who live in, work in or visit the city
  • Equity – Leveraging City influence to intentionally remove and prevent barriers created by systemic and institutional injustice
  • Innovation – Challenging how things have been done before, fulfilling community needs by offering new ways to serve our customers and enhance operations, and being nimble, self-aware and open to feedback
  • Sustainability – Making decisions with an understanding of how those decisions will impact the environment, people and communities and finances today and in the future

ESD staff already had adopted many of these values, which were reinforced by this approach.

Realizing that they would need more internal support to achieve these goals, ESD staff and WRRF management decided to continue to participate in the UotFT program to further motivate employees and showcase their collaborative approach to energy efficiency and resource recovery. This continuous attempt to achieve an ambitious goal served to reinforce the City’s commitment to sustainability and challenged staff members to stay motivated and generate new ideas for improvement.  

The collaborative approach yielded several projects that saved energy and supported the objectives of the City’s sustainability plan. Several meetings with other City departments and some digital town halls were held to engage the community to solicit input and generate suggestions for new projects. Some energy-related goals and projects that resulted from these meetings were:

  • Reduce the carbon footprint of City operations (buildings, utilities and fleet)
  • Assess the feasibility and cost of offsetting 100% of City electricity with renewable sources by FY2025
  • Create and support programs and policies to reduce carbon emissions from the building and transportation sectors throughout the community
  • Create a climate action and adaptation plan in partnership with the community
  • Work with community partners and businesses to achieve a 40% tree canopy – supported by ESD’s stormwater management projects

To achieve funding for these projects, ESD staff worked with the City’s Fiscal Services office to identify cost-effective financing solutions. At the same time, ESD worked with other departments to leverage resources where practicable. Along with its sustainability plan, the City implemented a policy to prioritize sustainability projects whenever possible in the capital project budgeting process. Meetings were held with other City departments to identify various capital projects and rank them according to the ones that would be most beneficial to the city - not necessarily the ones with the shortest returns or paybacks. Projects that could be financed were given priority. See the list here:

In addition, the City adopted a Smart Community initiative to integrate emerging internet of things (IoT) technologies with sustainability projects. A full-time licensed engineer within ESD is asssigned this effort, with support from other staff.  An example of a project that falls under the initiative is to develop a smart watershed model in which the water quality index of the Grand River can be provided in real-time. If anomalies are detected, the City can mitigate them before severe quality incidents develop. This infrastructure also monitors and records data on rainfall, storm flows and water depths.

Additional information on community engagement and partnership activities: 

Success is measured by project completion, energy and energy-cost savings (kWh), and energy generated from renewable sources. Project completion and the degree of stakeholder satisfaction is directly related to ESD’s ability to partner effectively with other City departments. By applying their collaborative approach, ESD staff developed strong working relationships with other stakeholders that could facilitate future sustainability initiatives.

One example is the combined sewer overflow project. This improvement project eliminated raw sewage overflows into the Grand River by separating and replacing storm and sanitary sewers and finished three years ahead of schedule in 2015. This earned ESD staff additional confidence from City leaders and made it easier to gain future project support, including an investment of $85 million toward construction of a biodigester and a combined heat and power project that will convert sludge and food waste to energy.

The City’s strategic plan continues to guide staff toward innovative and sustainability goals. To date, several ESD projects have realized significant energy and cost savings. They include:

  • HVAC controls to reduce heating and cooling energy usage at the main ESD office, Market Avenue Pump Station, Market Avenue Retention Basin and Sewer Maintenance Building. These projects save $146,000 in annual energy costs and improve the overall comfort and performance of these facilities.
  • Blowers at the WRRF were upgraded with heat recovery systems to capture process heat for process heating. This project saves roughly $25,000 per year. 
  • The WWRF is installing an $85 million biodigester and combined heat and power system that will enable the utility to be powered 100% by renewable energy.
  • A project to generate additional revenue by reclaiming phosphorus and selling it as fertilizer to local agricultural companies in the planning stages.

The ESD’s approach has yielded significant benefits to the community. In addition to increased energy efficiency and resource recovery, achieving the UotFT designation four years in a row has kept stakeholder relationships high and generated positive outcomes for the local environment and economy. The Grand River revitalization project is a great example of City leadership and community support as a result of these efforts. This project requires buy-in from all stakeholders, including residents, businesses, city leaders and federal and state agencies. This and other projects are made possible through setting aggressive goals, consistently meeting targets and a proven track record of success.