Alcosan's $3 billion Settlement:
Issues and Cost to You
A Note to My 'Green' Friends
To My 'Green' Friends,
'Green' technologies like rain gardens and gravel pavement are thought by advocates to present an opportunity for significant mitigation of combined sewer Wet Weather overflows. However, this means that two fundamental facts that need to be addressed:
Even if 'green actions' could materially affect the volumes of combined sewer overflows --which they likely cannot--, it is not Alcosan's role to implement such solutions. Alcosan has no legal authority over the municipalities, nor should they! Alcosan's sole and only job is to treat whatever flows the municipalities 'contract' with them. This means that any 'green' implementation would have to be done at individually at the municipality level, all 83 of them!
- Over fifty square miles of roofs, streets, and parking lot runoffs exist in combined sewer areas compared to the relative amount of rain barrels, 'green gardens', pervious pavements, or impoundment ponds that could be reasonably, or even unreasonably, be implemented; and,
I am not anti-'green'. I live in a suburban area; none of my roof's downspouts are connected to even a storm sewer or drain to a street curb. They drain to my yard and landscaping. I didn't plan it that way; but that's the way it worked out. So you might well say that I own a 'rain garden". But no one mandated (a big word for 'ordered') me to do so. Nor did any other taxpayers or sewer users pay for me to do it.
Clearly, any 'green' solution must make numeric and economic sense. Plans, projections, and estimates need to support its feasibility and likely impact on Wet Weather combined sewer overflows. So let's take a look at the numbers for the two key 'green' options.
Combined sewers represent 52.7 square miles of urban land use, or 25% of Alcosan's service territory. Working on the other 75% ---generally the higher income suburban areas-- does nothing useful because those areas already have separate storm sewers! Generally, in the applicable 25% combined-sewer area only two principal options exist: home roof overflows, and tearing out blacktop parking lots and replacing them with 'gravel', a short word for porous pavement. Don't forget that combined sewers are generally in older, high-density, land-locked areas having little room for easy solutions like impoundment ponds.
The Number of 'Rain Barrel' Homes that Would be Needed to Get Even a 10% Combined Sewer Overflow Impact is Huge
The amount of residential storm water remedial application effort to reduce even 10% of the combined sewer overflow is unachievably large. Let's look at the numbers. Combined sewers represent 52.7 square miles, or 25% of Alcosan's service territory.
Now assume that we are trying to reduce Wet Weather combined sewer overflows by only 10 percent! Taking account of the 672 million gallons a year of sanitary sewer overflows and looking at the present 8,937 million gallons a year of combined sewer overflows, the resulting target for reducing overflows by 10% would require a reduction of combined sewer overflows by 961 million gallons a year! Now let's take a look at how the numbers play out in terms of the what would have to be done to achieve that reduction.
One source of land-use data in combined sewer areas is Table 5 in Alcosan's Combined Sewer Overflow Program Phase 1 Activity Report: System Inventory and Characterization, September 28, 1995. Fortunately, it's still quite useful as land-use data changes very slowly over time. The total estimated area for combined sewers is 39,587 acres of which: 6,338 acres, 8,227 acres, and 6,688 acres are respectively in low, medium, and high density of residential land use. There are another 3,230 acres in highest residential density which are likely unreachable apartment buildings. Assigning the highest homes per acre of land use in those residential categories --2, 6, and 8-- yields a target of 116,000 homes in combined sewer areas. In all likelihood, it's probably even fewer.
This is because there are only 144,900 households in the Alcosan combined sewer area and in high-density older areas --like Pittsburgh-- owners and renters are generally split 50-50. Even assuming that 20% of homes are filled with renters, that would yield at most about 90,500 homes in the combined sewer area. Assuming that all these homes had an average of 1,000 square feet of roof and all had downspouts connected to a combined sewer and that all roof runoff led to a sewer overflow, then 46% or 41,600 homes would need to be converted to rain barrels or rain gardens --just to make a 10% reduction or 961 million gallons a year in combined sewer overflows! If only 30% of the home's roofs were presently not discharging into combined sewers, the percent of homes requiring 'green' conversion would increase to 66 percent! The percent of homes that would have to be converted to rain barrels or gardens is likely unachievable, even to get just a 10% reduction in combined sewer Wet Weather overflows.
Nor are the home site rain barrel or gardens volumes exactly trivial. At a sewer design 1-inch rainfall, a 1000 square foot roof would generate 620 gallons of downspout rainwater. Even a 1/4-inch storm would produce 155 gallons of water to be barreled or gardened.
The Reduction of Impervious Pavement that Would be Needed to Get Even a 10% Sewer Overflow Impact is Extremely Large
A general rule-of-thumb is that impervious roads and streets represent 30 to 40 percent of the land use in metropolitan areas. Nothing can be done about road and street runoff except at astronomical expense and great disruption. If this 40% rule applies and if the medium density and above residential plus all commercial land use total 20,000 acres as reported, then the runoff from that area alone is just over 8,000 million gallons a year.
Just to make a 10% impact on combined sewer overflows, a reduction of 961 million gallons a year would be required as calculated earlier. This would require a removal of 1.5 square miles or almost 1,000 acres of impervious runoff area. This kind of area is difficult to visualize. One way to look at it is that the needed impervious area change would represent the equivalent removal of 220 miles of streets just to make a 10% reduction in combined sewer overflows from curbs, gutters, and parking lots!
Moreover even if such large amounts could be achieved in combined sewer areas, the life of pervious pavement solutions may not be certain. One reason would be the propensity of pervious materials to 'silt up' due to the region's ubiquitously unattractive salt and grit driven road conditions during the winter.
Can a 'Green' Solution Make a Real Impact
It appears highly unlikely. 'Green' solutions will not have a material impact on Wet Weather combined sewer overflows, even if pushed aggressively, based on the huge numbers required to make even a 10% impact on the Wet Weather design configuration.
Furthermore, any impact would have to be reflected by municipalities actually releasing nominated Wet Weather flow capacities that they have already requested Alcosan to handle. Moreover, in the likely event that the promoted 'green' capacities did not materialize, the municipalities would then be literally "up the creek without a paddle" as far as legal Wet Weather treatment compliance.
The Tyranny of Mandates and their Resulting Hidden Costs
Based on the huge numbers involved to make even a 10% impact, it is unlikely that 'green' solutions will, or even could, have any impact on the Wet Weather construction design configuration. Undoubtedly, some volunteers can be found in affluent suburbs to distribute rain barrels and dig rain gardens. If 'green' options can stand on their feet alone, all well and good. Go for it! However, translating this volunteer effort into converting huge numbers of homes in less affluent inner suburbs that actually have combined sewers appears very problematic.
This whole concept also raises the troubling specter of cost and of likely subsidization by taxpayers and other sewer users. Indeed, sustainable jobs has already been raised by some 'green' Wet Weather advocates. However, such 'green' job programs have been a spectacular unmitigated failure elsewhere. The President's Council of Economic Advisors recently admitted that the much touted Federal green jobs program has cost taxpayers $355,000 per job. Strangely, under Federal definitions the largest green job category is "janitors and cleaners"! This is the kind of dismal experience that does not bear repetition or subsidization at the Allegheny County level.
If such 'green' Wet Weather solutions can stand on their own, that's absolutely great. Go for it with dispatch. However… Just because 'green' makes advocates feel 'good' does not justify mandates, particularly when these burden taxpayers and other sewer users with any costs! Whatever is done as a 'green' alternative Wet Weather solution should not be subsidized by taxpayers or from sewer bills.
You may not realize it, but over one-third of Alcosan's households are on some type of Social Security. Demanding 'green' subsidization from taxpayers or sewer payers is the exact moral equivalent of: "Mugging a little old lady on fixed social security income; stealing money from her purse; and putting that stolen money in a 'church of green' collection plate so that 'green' advocates can feel 'good'."
As consumer's and tax payers, we don't need more mandates and costly subsidies. As shown below: We are already 'giving at the office' once with Renewable Energy Standards for electric power generation …and… that is not working out well either!
Thanks for listening and looking at the 'numbers',
For an example of this kind of 'green' advocacy already run amuck, read on in this area if you're interested. And, thanks for reading this far!
You may not realize it, but your electric bill is already increasing because of one such example of 'green' gone awry to the detriment of consumers and taxpayers. This is due to the mandated Renewable Energy Standards (RES) for electricity generation. Renewables mean: wind, solar, biomass, and hydroelectric. Current electric bills for residential customers now stand at about 11.5 cents per kilowatt hour which is over $1,300 per year.
This renewables standard is already implemented by a number of states including Pennsylvania. It basically orders utilities to buy a certain percentage of their electric supply from renewables (solar, wind, biomass, and hydro) irrespective of whether or not such supplies are even economic or even whether their inclusion adversely impacts electric grid operation.
Initially forecasted to cost 'less than three percent' or about 0.4 cents per kilowatt hour by the Federal government's key expert --the U.S. Energy Information Administration--, the impact on electric consumer has already spiraled widely out of control. The main culprit is the fact that these renewable electric supplies aren't even remotely close to being economic. (This is illustrated by the charts below on the next page.)
Moreover, since wind is highly variable and unpredictable, wind renewables are already well on the way to causing significant electric grid impacts such as outages and diseconomies such as wind generators paying the grid to take their power so they can continue to receive Federal subsidies. Wind renewables have also caused significant grid dispatch issues due to their variability and lack of predictability (see particularly slides 109 and 110).
Renewables are mandated, a big word for ordered, to reach over 35% of electric production by 2035. At present, they only stand at around 4.8% of the electric supply and include principally wind with a minor amount of biomass and solar. This doesn't count the 8% that's lower cost hydro; but which hasn't budged since the mandate started principally because 'greens' are fighting hydroelectric permitting.
Today, the Manhattan Institute estimates the this meager 4.8% renewables has already increased residential customer electric costs by 31%. Indeed, the Heritage Foundation estimates that the present renewables mandate has already cost electric customers $50 billion in 2012 and is responsible for the loss of 300,000 jobs. By the time the dust settles in 2035, these renewables mandates in electric supply will have sucked $5 trillion out of the Federal GDP and will have cost 1.3 million lost jobs. That's a big hit to make renewables advocates feel 'good' at other's expense.
This 'green' initiative to add a few renewables to the electric supply was sold almost invisibly on the basis of "don't worry, electric consumers will easily pay for it in their electric bill" and "'green' is good for you." Renewable Energy Standards are well on their way to becoming a huge, hidden electric tax on consumers, as well as a significant drag on the nation's lackluster economy.
Some further supplemental backup information on Renewable Energy Standards for electric power generation is continued below:
The above slide shows a fully powered off-the-grid solar home with photovoltaic cells for electric use plus solar water heating. The solar components would cost $72,700 to buy and install. To save electric use and installation costs, the home would use propane for cooking, clothes drying, and space heating. Also, there is no electric air conditioning installed.
Even then, the resulting electric cost to the homeowner would be $6,560 a year ...or... 49.9 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh). In comparison, a normal on-the-grid home would have paid only $1,510 per year for electricity from an electric utility!
Clearly solar electric supply as a renewable energy is far more expensive than normal grid power. Moreover, there is not much economy-of-scale. Thus, commercial or grid based solar installations would not be much less expensive per kilowatt hour of energy.
The above slide shows a fully powered off-the-grid renewable home with wind for electric use plus solar water heating. The renewable energy components would cost $62,340 to buy and install. To save electric use and related installation costs, the home uses propane for cooking, clothes drying, and space heating. Also, no electric air conditioning is installed.
Even then, the resulting electric cost to the homeowner would be $6,900 a year ...or... a staggering 52.5 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh). In comparison, a normal on-the-grid home would have paid only $1,510 per year for power from an average local electric utility!
Clearly wind electric supply as a renewable energy is far more expensive than normal grid power. However, there is at least some economy-of-scale for large multi-megawatt grid-based wind farms. Even so, the busbar cost at the edge of a wind farm where it sends its power into a high voltage transmission line would still be around 14.9 cents per kWh.
Wind farms are located where wind conditions are ideal. Unfortunately, this is not usually where electric grid transmission lines already exist. Thus, another 1.5 cents is typically needed for a new transmission line to connect the wind farm's output to the existing electric grid.
At this point a lot of statistical data has already been collected from wind farms. As you would expect, ten wind turbines installed at a 'farm' will usually smooth out local variations between individual units; but not, the kinds of wind farm total output swings demonstrated in the graph above. Surprisingly, if you connect two large wind farms 600 miles apart, you can still only smooth out about half the height of the chart's hour-to-hour variations. Obviously, this greatly complicates electric grid operations. Grid customer loads are actually fairly smooth curves over the day; wind outputs are anything but smooth and will vary substantially from hour-to-hour.
This inherent wind farm variability actually means that a like amount of existing fossil fuel generating capacity must be kept hot and spinning so that it is ready to pickup the grid's load during these kinds of normal wind generation fluctuations. This is because these other generators can take tens-of-minutes to hours to start and come on line to supply customer loads. Without this spinning reserve of existing idled generators, the grid voltage could fluctuate wildly because of wind output fluctuations. If this were to happen, your television or refrigerator or other electric powered devices would either not work or burn out. This necessary spinning reserve generation adds --at minimum-- yet another 1.5 cents. Thus, the overall cost of renewable wind power when operationally connected to the electric grid actually totals 17.9 cents per kWh. This is a very high generating cost for something whose fuel input was supposedly "free"! And this doesn't even count the 2.2 cents per kWh Federal wind generation subsidy that you already paid to the wind generator as part of your income tax bill.
However, the wind renewable cost rollup isn't done yet. It will cost at least another 0.5 cent per kWh to get the wind power through the existing grid; and, around another 5 cents to distribute it locally to your home. Thus, this supposedly "free" renewable wind energy costs 17.9 + 0.5 + 5.0 for a total of 23.4 cents per kWh when delivered to your home. This renewable wind energy winds up costing 103% more than the average 11.5 cents per kWh that's the current average residential cost! And of course, the wind energy's 'fuel' was free!
Now a key complication surfaces as wind power is connected to the grid. The graph on the right shows an actual day in the life of a Minnesota wind farm. It clearly demonstrates that wind power is both highly variable and fairly unpredictable. Moreover, a 100 megawatt (MW) sized wind plant will, at best, average only about 40 Mw of actual output over the course of a year. Some hours it might be at a full 100 MW output; other hours, at 0 MW when the wind dies; and at other times somewhere in between. Moreover, because wind generators are aerodynamic devices, their electric power output actually varies by the cube of the wind speed! For example at a 20 miles per hour (mph) wind speed, a wind farm might be rated at 80 MW of power output. However, if the wind speed drops to 10 mph, the power output from that same wind farm would decline not by 1/2; but rather, by 1/8 to only 10 MW. Thus, modest changes in wind speed will make huge changes in wind farm power output.
The adjacent chart is from an extensive analysis by the Heritage Foundation and shows the ultimate residential customer cost of a 100% supply from various renewables. As the chart indicates, the increasingly large mandated renewables supply of electric power adds significant costs to residential customers --no matter which renewable is chosen by your electric supplier!