Great Lakes Water Utility Leaders Rise to the Challenge

By Dr. Lauren Bigelow, Growth Capital Network

In the spring of 2017, five US water systems in the Great Lakes region embarked on a utility world series of sorts.

It’s a one-year competition to reduce energy-related pollution emissions, especially mercury. Funded by the Great Lakes Protection Fund and managed by the American Water Works Association, the inaugural Water Utility Energy and Efficiency Challenge was aimed at connecting the utilities with cutting-edge tech while promoting an awareness of the emissions associated with their energy use.

“I am using the challenge as incentive to step back from my day-to-day duties and reexamine our routine operations from the perspective of energy conservation,” said Donald Jensen, superintendent of water production for the City of Highland Park in Illinois. “While it is easier to follow the old ‘tried and true’ practices, improvement can only come from challenging the status quo.”

In addition to Highland Park, the participating utilities include the City of Bayfield in Wisconsin, City of Ann Arbor in Michigan, the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) in Southeastern Michigan, and OCWA, central New York’s water authority. They were chosen from a broad field of applicants and range in size from the GLWA, which serves more than 4 million residents, to Bayfield, at less than 1,000. The program also is open to Canadian utilities.

Using innovative software developed by Dr. Carol Miller, Wayne State University engineering professor and director of the WSU Healthy Urban Waters Program (and co-chair of the IJC’s Great Lakes Science Advisory Board Science Priority Committee), participating utilities have been reducing emissions from energy use and saving thousands of dollars in energy costs.

The five competing utilities received the software, step-by-step instruction and technical assistance. They submitted monthly reports and reported hourly energy usage at each energy consumption location, such as pump stations and buildings. At the end of the competition, utilities were scored on their reductions in energy-related pollution emissions. The reductions are weighted, with mercury reductions earning the highest number of points.

First place wins $20,000 in cash, and second place receives $10,000. The competition wrapped up in April 2018 and the awards are to be announced on May 21 in Chicago.


The utilities are using two new software technologies. Polluting Emissions Pump Station Optimization (PEPSO) is a package that incorporates emission modeling technology (called LEEM) to optimize pump operations of water distribution systems for energy and emission reduction.

LEEM is the Locational Emissions Estimation Methodology
LEEM is the Locational Emissions Estimation Methodology, a data service that uses a sophisticated system of databases and models to specify the marginal power plant emissions attributed to energy use by location. Credit: Wayne State University, Healthy Waters Initiative

GLWA, a regional water authority established in 2014, is using LEEM. Shaker Manns, the utility’s energy program manager, said the challenge will help his utility establish a carbon footprint baseline.

“I’ve already created a baseline for electricity, but I don’t have a carbon footprint baseline yet,” Manns said. “The challenge allows me to compare this water authority to other water authorities to see where we really stand, and hopefully highlight areas that we can work on and things we are doing well.”

When he first heard about the competition last year, Manns said he immediately knew he wanted GLWA to participate.

“The Water Utility Challenge helps me balance energy usage and carbon footprint at the same time,” Manns said, “and make the environmental just as important as the economic considerations.”

leem process
The LEEM process. Credit: LEEM

Lynne Chaimowitz, a financial analyst for water treatment in Ann Arbor, noted that she has seen estimates that between 2 and 4 percent of electrical consumption in the United States is due to water production, so focusing on water utilities to impact emission from power production seems logical.

Although reducing mercury emissions is the principal focus, reductions in carbon dioxide, sulfur oxides, and nitrogen oxides typically go hand in hand, “so the procedural modifications that we are making have a general positive impact on the environment.”

While participating in the challenge, Ann Arbor has worked to ensure that its operational changes do not impact the level or cost of services.  “It has provided us an opportunity,” she said, “to see where we have, and do not have, flexibility in how we operate and maintain the water system.”

How can you be involved?

Because of support from the Great Lakes Protection Fund, the PEPSO and LEEM technologies are available for free to U.S. and Canadian local water utilities. Make them aware that they can download it directly from the technology website and receive technical support for its installation.

Dr. Lauren Bigelow, CEO of the Growth Capital Network, is an innovation competition expert and board member of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

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