Tuesday, September 16, 2014

An Award We All Share

I was surprised and honored to receive the George Warren Fuller Award at the recent Chesapeake Bay Tri-Association Conference in Ocean City. Tri-Con is a joint meeting of regional sections of the American Water Works Association, the Water Environment Federation, and the Waste Water Treatment Operators Association.

I was surprised, because I was attending the conference to accept an award on behalf of our Innovations Chief Sudhir Murthy, who was unable to attend due to a previously scheduled vacation. I was delighted to learn I had won the Fuller Award when all the past winners converged on my table and escorted me to the podium. The award is the AWWA’s top service award for innovation in technology, management and diplomacy in the water sector. It is named for George Fuller who was instrumental to the establishment of AWWA – the oldest water association in the United States.

I am humbled by the award and noted in my remarks that I feel like a coach receiving an award for a team’s success – with the acute recognition that I am not one of the players on the field for the game itself. It is only through the excellence of DC Water’s personnel – from the Executive Team to every man and woman at every level – that generates the positive energy, ideas and action that rebounds back to recognition for me.

I am also pleased to receive recognition from my colleagues in the business itself, for only those of us in the water world can really appreciate what the work demands. I thank the DC Water Board of Directors again for giving me the opportunity to be part of this great enterprise!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Ice Bucket Challenge Accepted

Ice Bucket Challenge on top of Fort Reno Reservoir's green roof. Photo by Andy Le.
I was hoping I might survive the Ice Bucket Challenge craze unscathed, but my luck ran out when my good friend Julius Ciaccia challenged me. Ciaccia, as we call him, is the Executive Director of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD). He really set the bar very high when he took the challenge – using effluent from one of NEORSD’s wastewater treatment centers. What a great, creative  way to highlight the incredible contribution wastewater treatment makes to clean water every day!

Dewatering shaft for the Clean Rivers Project. Photo by David Kidd.

To try and top that, we first thought of going deep into the new dewatering shaft here at Blue Plains, but then again, maybe dropping ice water on my head from 100+ feet in the air wouldn’t be such a great idea.

So, then we decided to go up instead – on top of one of our water reservoirs where we recently installed a green roof. Green roofs and other green infrastructure capture rainwater and reduce runoff into our storm drains and sewer system, which in turn can reduce combined sewer overflows into our rivers.

So, here it goes, bring on the ice!

And in case you missed it, here is Ciaccia’s original challenge posted on NEORSD's Facebook page.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Innovation in 3 Easy Steps - Part III - Examples from Everywhere all the Time!

As promised, I am writing a final innovation post about various examples of innovation underway or already in place at DC Water. It’s often thought that water utilities are risk adverse and lacking in innovation. DC Water is challenging this notion and is a prime example of how the water utility sector is moving faster than ever before in taking calculated risks to achieve and provide cheaper, faster and more effective services. Why? For the benefit of our ratepayers. Ultimately every decision we make is in the interest of providing affordable and high quality services 24/7/365.

In my previous posts, I’ve highlighted a few very specific examples and now it’s time to explore how innovation is the core of our business. I’m sure that many utilities could conduct a similar inventory of their current work and realize that innovation is already integrated into most of what we do!  The various short stories and examples I share below demonstrate how DC Water is innovative in all aspects of our business.

Innovation in Financing Research

This first example relates to my previous post on DC Water’s biosolids program. While DC Water is currently executing a significant effort to produce Class A Biosolids, we were already thinking innovatively ten years ago when we saw an opportunity and changed the paradigm under which we contract for the recycling of our biosolids (a valuable carbon and nutrient asset). What did we do? We started requiring contracted biosolids haulers to provide DC Water a nutrient rebate to leverage resources for biosolids research. Originally, the rebate was $1/ton, which DC Water was contractually required to spend on research. Since then, the nutrient rebate has increased to $2/ton, generating $500,000 per year for research, which DC Water uses to fund dozens of projects at several partner universities (including the University of Maryland, Virginia Tech, Bucknell, and others). 

One of the many success stories resulting from this rebate program is research conducted in partnership with Virginia Tech that investigated the benefits of using biosolids as fertilizer. It was previously observed and reported anecdotally that biosolids-fertilized crops were more drought-resistant and produced higher yield than crops fertilized with inorganic chemical products. DC Water partnered with Virginia Tech using research funds from the nutrient rebate program to discover that biosolids have high levels of vital, naturally occurring plant hormones that are crucial for resisting stress. Further research determined that the naturally occurring hormones are produced as byproducts by the microbes at DC Water’s Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant during nitrogen removal. In short, the research was able to pinpoint why biosolids help crops resist drought more than other fertilizers. In addition to the contribution to scientific knowledge, this result will increase the value of DC Water’s biosolids production. Through the research, DC Water was able to add value to its product, help farmers grow healthy crops, and advance the base of scientific knowledge related to drought resistance. 

Innovation in Restoring an Aging Infrastructure

DC Water spends about $10 million each year replacing damaged or old sewer laterals to minimize leaks. Sewer laterals carry sewage from a house to the main sewer line. They’re a vital part of the system and one of the most important for individual homeowners, because when there’s a problem with your lateral, you know it.

Replacing a sewer lateral is a relatively small repair for us, but a big deal for the homeowner and neighboring homes. Over several days, a crew typically will dig an entire trench, including a hole in the street and sidewalk and through the yard, removing dirt, plants, and sometimes even walls and stairs. Then, the pipe is replaced and everything must be restored. It’s an expensive and time-consuming process.

To save time and money, we now use a trenchless technology called cured-in-place pipe for sewer lateral replacement. Cured-in-place pipe is a soft fabric liner that can be inserted into an old or leaky pipe. The old pipe is cleaned first and the liner is soaked with resin and inserted into the old pipe through an access hole. Then, the resin is heated, causing the liner to harden, essentially forming a new pipe inside the old one. No trench necessary!

The entire repair is faster, cheaper, and less disruptive. So far, we’ve been testing this technology and only a small portion of our lateral repairs have been trenchless, but even that small proportion has saved DC Water over $1 million during the last two years. We’re using that money to replace more laterals faster, preventing potential sewage leaks. And soon, we’ll be expanding the trenchless program, switching two of our traditional crews from the traditional method to trenchless replacement.

Innovation in Wastewater Treatment

Wastewater treatment involves the removal of both carbon and nitrogen. Carbon is mainly associated with organic compounds in the sewage.  Sewage is treated in aerated basins where microorganisms break down these compounds using oxygen, microorganism that also consume carbon for cell growth. Nitrogen is removed in a similar process downstream of the carbon removal stage. The microorganisms that remove nitrogen also require organic carbon as food, but the upstream process is so efficient that there is not enough carbon remaining to feed the nitrogen-removing microbes. So at Blue Plains, as elsewhere, methanol must be added to the nitrogen removal tanks.

To improve this process, our wastewater research staff has developed a process modification that allows continuous pumping of nitrogen removing microorganisms into the carbon-removal tanks. This allows removal of a portion of the nitrogen load without the addition of carbon, taking advantage of carbon already present in the plant flow. As a result, less methanol is needed in the nitrogen removal process – so much less, in fact, that DC Water is saving $1 million per year on buying methanol.

DC Water was awarded a patent for the development of this technology. Initially, the proof of concept was developed at essentially no cost, and installing a dedicated pipe sending sludge from the nitrogen removal stage to the carbon removal stage was constructed at a cost of approximately $200,000 – given the massive savings on methanol, the project paid for itself in less than a year. Innovative solutions that can give that return on investment are what DC Water is all about!

Innovation in Information Technology and Customer Response Time

DC Water tracks significant amounts of valuable information, including maps of our equipment and assets, lists of work orders for our crews, the locations of our vehicles, and problems reported by our customers. While we had several systems to store and view this information, they were unable to communicate with each other. To resolve this challenge, DC Water conceived and developed a single system, called the Integrated Work and Resource Management Solution, which brings all of these different pieces together in one place.

Map showing reported problem and current repair vehicle locations
The new system allows staff in our Command Center to see everything on a single map: vehicle locations, reported problems, and where our equipment is, all in real-time. That means when a customer reports a problem via DC Water’s website (dcwater.com) or on a smartphone, a dispatcher will see the problem immediately appear on a map. The Command Center can view work crews that are nearby and coordinate a response with other groups within DC Water. Work orders can be issued or assigned directly from the map system, saving travel time, improving efficiency, and resolving problems faster.

This view shows a hydrant replacement job and crews assigned
Efficiency gains have already been achieved. Even better, as onboard laptops are deployed, field crews will be able to instantly access this information, no longer needing to contact the Command Center – a 20-minute wait reduced to seconds. In the future, analysis of patterns within the data is expected to allow us to do an even better job predicting and responding to problems. The Integrated Work and Resource Management Solution is just one more way DC Water is working to connect different parts of our business to solve problems and complete repairs even faster.

Innovation in Engineering Solutions

In 2009, DC Water was confronted with a significant problem when a leak developed on the slope of a hill emanating from a 78” transmission water main – that’s a big pipe! The main was critical to continue supplying water to our customers, so it couldn’t be shut off for long. When we inspected the pipe to find the source of the leak, things got even worse: we found some defects in the structure of the pipe itself. Repairing a pipe this size would be a big job no matter what, especially on a hill, but in this case another major water main lies on top of the leaky one. A traditional, open-cut excavation job would have been extremely difficult and incredibly disruptive, not to mention long and expensive. 

Because of the critical nature of this water main and the complicated terrain issues coupled with our concern that we could not keep the main out-of-service for an extended period of time, we needed to look beyond the conventional repair methods. At this time, we found carbon fiber technology as a possible solution for repair of this critical main.  Carbon fiber wrap is a trenchless technology that has its roots in bridge seismic rehabilitation and repair primarily on the west coast since the 1990’s. Here’s how it works. A high-technology fabric made of carbon fibers is bonded to the existing concrete. The high tensile strength of the fabric reinforces the structure and holds the pipe together, repairing the defects and preventing further deterioration.

The use of carbon fiber wrap turned out to be the perfect solution for our leaking 78” water main..  We were able to complete this repair in less than three weeks, saving a substantial amount of time and money over the conventional method and greatly reducing the risk to the other pipe on the same hill.  With the success of this project, we added carbon fiber wrap to our toolbox for complicated repairs that require structural reinforcement in difficult to access and environmentally sensitive locations. 

Innovation in Local Hiring

DC Water has arguably the largest capital program in the District of Columbia with multiple large scale infrastructure projects currently underway at the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant and other sites across the city. More major projects are planned over the next 10 years. These projects are largely funded by our ratepayers, and for that reason we've launched the DC Water Works! initiative - a multi-pronged effort to boost local hiring on DC Water projects and manage the employment requirements of contractors.

The majority of workers on DC Water's construction projects are hired and employed by construction contractors and their subcontractors, and there are many opportunities in a variety of trades. DC Water Works! is a targeted campaign initiative to advertise DC Water jobs to local District residents, collaborate with District job training and apprenticeship programs and coordinate an incentive-based program to encourage DC Water contractors to interview and hire District residents.

DC Water Works involves a multi-faceted approach targeting both local residents and contractors. First, we established three satellite job centers created to advertise job vacancies of contractors and provide space for interviews. Second, we began providing a financial incentive of 5 - 10 percent of DC payroll for contractors when local employment goals are met. We’re also placing paid trainees on crews to increase the knowledge and skill base of our local residents. All of these efforts incentivize a process that supports our local economy while providing job training and skills to local residents.

Innovation in Communications

At DC Water, we prioritize our customers as #1 and as a result we’ve invested in building a powerhouse External Affairs Team that is responsible for marketing our brand and communicating about our work. Unlike many utilities, this 13-person team includes a production team with in-house designers and videographers, social media experts, a media manager and a community outreach team. Throughout the year, this group is continually launching impressive District-wide campaigns and outreach events that would otherwise require third-party marketing and communication firms, resulting in significant savings and stellar branding throughout our service area.

The DC Water Outreach Team is particularly innovative in communications. On any given day, this team is tracking dozens of construction projects that are underway in the District and ensuring our customers are informed and satisfied with our work. Part of this outreach includes traditional attendance at community meetings and snail mail notification of upcoming projects. However, DC Water’s construction outreach has moved beyond traditional communications and is taking advantage of social media to connect with our customers, including Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube and Flickr. 

In addition to social media, we’ve also implemented an automated workzone notification system in which customers can receive text or email alerts about construction in their neighborhood, including scheduled and emergency work. These alerts are also distributed using Twitter in which DC Water currently has more than 7,000 followers! Every day, our External Affairs Team is on the streets, at public events and on social media communicating with our customers and highlighting the importance and necessity of our work!

And the list goes on …

There are dozens of stories to share about innovation at DC Water and I hope this provides a brief glimpse into how we are working towards becoming a world-class water utility. I am grateful to have a workforce that is eager and willing to think innovatively when challenges arise and find ways we can do our work better, faster and cheaper. It’s becoming what we do best!

And we have only just begun!

Monday, July 21, 2014

100 Good Reasons Why Innovation Must Come From Everywhere in Your Organization

DC Clean Rivers Project
Our challenge is clear.  We have a $3.8 billion ten-year Capital Improvement Program (CIP) supported by our retail and wholesale ratepayer base in the Washington, DC region.  We are at the peak of spending for our CIP now, driving significant yearly rate increases that are well above inflation.

The largest component of the CIP is the DC Clean Rivers Project: a once-in-several lifetimes project to expand fundamentally the capacity of our combined sewer system to reduce by 96% the overflow of a mixture of stormwater and sewage that gushes into our waterways during rainstorms.  Clean Rivers will drive the construction of huge deep underground tunnels that will capture and transport the overflow to our mammoth treatment facility at Blue Plains.

The combined sewer overflow (CSO) design dates back to the late 1800s.  Our solution will last well into the next century.  Our ratepayers are asking why the current generation of customers must pay to solve a problem that spans centuries.  Fair question.

CFO Mark Kim
Innovation is at the core of our solution.  During my interview sixteen months ago with an exciting candidate for Chief Financial Officer – Mark Kim, recruited from New York City with deep investment banking experience in the municipal sector on the private and public side – I asked how he could help with this challenge.  He promised a range of new ideas and started describing ultra long-dated debt, green bond investors and more.  By the way, we were lucky to hire him – and he has been a whirlwind of innovation and skill on almost every aspect of our financial agenda. 

Fast forward to a misty morning in July.  The morning started early, perhaps 6:30 am, forty-two stories up looking over the Hudson River.  Mist was floating off the River, obscuring at times the boats that were crossing to transport folks to work.  I was at the office of Goldman Sachs in New York City preparing for meetings with potential investors.  Our first call was with an investment fund from England.

CFO Mark Kim and I quickly reviewed our “road show.”  We had taped an audio review of the show that matched the power point slides, which was available on-line.  Yet potential investors wanted to meet either in-person or by phone.  So we started our presentation during the first call, but were quickly interrupted by a blizzard of questions: about the debt offering, about our financials, about our governance, about our business model.  This call ended and the next began, one after the other, some on the phone, some in-person, some at Goldman, some at the co-bookrunner Barclays, some at the offices of potential investors.  The roadshow lasted for three days.

Mark told me this was far more intense than the typical road show, matching the intense meetings we had with the three rating agencies: Fitch, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s.  Why the scrutiny?  Why so many questions?

There are a hundred answers.  One hundred years to be specific, or the maturity of the bonds we planned to issue: century bonds!  Of the thousands upon thousands of bond deals done in the United States, only a few dozen had been structured with a one hundred year maturity – and all those were in the higher education sphere or corporate markets.  Never has a municipal water utility sought to issue a century bond (D.C. Water Considers First-Ever Century Bond by a Public Utility - Governing Magazine, June 20, 2014).

The answer is also green.  In parallel to the century bonds, we were also issuing certified “green” bonds.  While a few issuers had issued self-declared green bonds in the last few years, we were the first in the United States to seek a third party certification on the green nature of the work the bond would fund.  We sought to bring in SRI funds – or Socially Responsible Investment funds – as new investors to DC Water. 

Then the answer comes back to taxes.  For a variety of reasons, there is no market for tax-exempt investors at such long duration debt.  In order to attract investors to a century bond, we also had to enter the taxable market.  Municipalities almost always issue tax-exempt bonds.  The taxable (corporate) market does not know us.

So our innovative solution had two firsts and one oddity:  100 year maturity, green certification, and the taxable market for a municipal issuer.  The first question we had to overcome is why a green century bond?  We have four legs to support the table of our answer: 
  1. Asset-Liability Matching.  The deep tunnel system at the core of the Clean Rivers Project is unique in our CIP due to its minimum useful life of 100 years.  Our own engineering office and an independent engineering assessment confirms that the minimum life of the tunnels is 100 years, and likely much longer.  We are planning to capitalize and depreciate the tunnels over 100 years on our balance sheet once they are completed.  By financing the tunnels over 100 years as well, we have matched up this huge asset with its corresponding liability and financing plan.
  2. Intergenerational Equity.  The Clean Rivers Project solves a problem that dates back to the design of the combined sewer system in the 1880s.  Our solution is designed to last a minimum of 100 years.  Together, this is a project that is resolving a challenge that has a two-century lifespan.  Many ratepayers have asked why a group of citizens from a much shorter time frame (30 or 35-years for more traditional bonds) should pay the cost of this once-in-a-several-generation project.  Our view is that spreading out the cost of a project to all the ratepayers who will realize the benefits of the project – by design – is simply fairer to the entire group.
  3. Green.  Identifying this bond as a “green” bond would bring to the table a group of investors who are limited to investing in projects that are considered socially responsible.  We strongly believe that the tunnels will drive the largest improvement to water quality since the building of Blue Plains.  So, with such an unusual issuance, we wanted to be sure as many investors could be brought into the deal as possible – including socially responsible investors.
  4. Market Opportunity.   Three trends have made this type of transaction possible.  First, absolute interest rates have fallen to historically low levels.  Second, the market is not requiring much of an extra yield premium for taxable bonds.  (Of course, DC Water has to pay a higher interest rate in a taxable transaction than tax-exempt, because the bondholder has to pay taxes on the income they receive from us.)  Third, the market is also not requiring much of a yield premium to seek a 100-year bond.  These characteristics, which are both highly variable and highly unusual, make a 100-year taxable issuance an opportunity in this particular market.
Despite our confidence in the decision, many were initially skeptical about whether we could succeed.  Extending a bond out to 100 years has been done perhaps a dozen times recently, but never by a water utility.    We also wanted to issue a green bond.  Only six bond issuances in the United States have been issued as green bonds – and all were self-declared, which has caused some negative feedback in the media and from environmental groups.  We decided to seek a third party certification of the green nature of our bonds.  Once again, no municipal issuer – in fact no issuer of any kind – had even pursued a certification for a green bond issuance in the United States!

DC Water’s plan was then to achieve several firsts for the industry: a 100-year bond, a certified green bond, and a municipal 100-year green bond!  We had no idea how the market would react, because this was a first in the United States.

Our first obstacle was to overcome any skepticism by our rating agencies (Moody’s, Fitch, and Standard and Poor’s).  Rating agencies are asked to provide a credit rating covering any new debt by an issuer.  When rating agencies provide a rating, though, it is not just for the new debt, but all other outstanding bonds of an enterprise.  When a credit rating is lowered, or an issuer is put on notice for a potential downgrade, it is much harder, or at least more expensive, to borrow money under any terms and conditions.

During the months of April and May, DC Water traveled first to New York City to meet with the rating agencies to discuss our financial plans.  We then hosted the agencies at Blue Plains to describe the deal specifically.  While we had telegraphed we were interested in a long-dated debt last year, the agencies were still not sure how to evaluate such an unusual issuance.  One of the agencies even seemed fairly hostile to the idea, at least at first.

Fortunately, CFO Mark Kim and his team, including our excellent financial advisors at Public Financial Management and our bankers at Goldman and Barclay’s, moved into overdrive and had dozens of conversations with the agencies over several weeks.  In the end, the agencies were convinced by the explanation we outline above, and by the financial safeguards and performance we have delivered over the last decade.  Just a week or two before we planned to go to market, we had received stable ratings by all the agencies – maintaining our strong credit even in relation to a green century bond!

I must say, I am impressed by the professionalism of the rating agencies and how thorough they are in their work.  Our course, I am ultimately pleased they maintained our strong ratings (third best that is possible for any issuer).  But they appropriately evaluated this deal and our financial performance carefully, and were ultimately open to new ideas as long as we could provide sufficient explanations.

Our next step was detailed and exacting work developing a preliminary offering statement (pos) – which is the document investors review to decide whether to invest.  We then reviewed our plans with several committees of our Board of Directors, leading to a formal review by the Board at a special retreat and then a final vote.  After all these steps, we were ready to go to the market.  I must say, DC Water is blessed with a thoughtful and careful Board – which like the rating agencies, engaged with careful due diligence – but was also open to new ideas.

Like a sales plan for any product, we had to market our century bond in a “road show” to potential buyers.  Mark and I scheduled this road show for the first week in July, flying out on Sunday evening to Boston to start bright and early Monday morning to meet one-on-one with investors.

Most of these investors are associated with life insurance companies, pension funds or other investment vehicles – and all are experienced and focused on delivering value to their customers.  We knew we had a challenge before us to sell a product with no precedent to investors who might not know us – for we had meetings with three investor categories who likely had not considered DC Water before: investors in taxable bonds, investors in century bonds, and investors in green bonds. 

Over three days, Mark and I held more than 20 one-on-one meetings with investors, and at times, groups of investors.  These meetings were set-up by our crack team from Goldman & Sachs and Barclay’s – joint “bookrunners.”  The term comes from the practice, now almost forgotten in the midst of time, of recording potential buy orders from green or blue buy slips in the “book” for the transaction.  Of course, this process is electronic now.   Goldman and Barclay’s have huge sales forces, working the phones and the internet to set up meetings with interested buyers.

Goldman, and sometimes Barclay, bankers accompanied us in every meeting with investors.  Early in the week, Jeff Scruggs, the amiable, experienced and wise lead for the Goldman municipal banking group, predicted that we were likely to go to the market with the offering the next week – but that there was a small chance we might go earlier.  That seemed a pretty remote chance at first. 

We presented our case.  With enthusiasm, thought and care –  over and over. We could feel the momentum start to build.  One or two meetings were difficult, but we did not falter – we scheduled follow-ups, responded to written questions, prepared further analysis as needed.  By the third day of the road show, we had investors seeking to schedule time with us.  The chance of an early sale increased.

Thursday early - with the mists rolling off the Hudson - dawned with anticipation.  We sat in the Goldman offices with financial data streaming over a huge screen.  We met with the Goldman syndicate desk – the folks who actually price the deal – and decided to go to market early.  Plus, unrest in the Middle East and a banking problem in Portugal had triggered a “global flight to quality” back into the  US treasury market.  More demand drives up the price of the treasuries – in the form of lower interest rates.  In the bond world, price and yield move in opposite directions!  So the higher the price of a bond, the lower its yield.  The rate we would set for our bonds is based on a “credit spread” above the US 30 year treasury rate.  We started our “price talk” with a credit spread of +155-160 basis points.  For those new to the field, each unit of interest rate has 100 basis points.  So 160 basis points meant 1 3/5% above the US 30 year rate.  We were hovering at or just above 5% for our bonds.

The rest of Thursday was exciting – like a sporting event.  Really!  The sales forces were contacting buyers, potential investors were indicating an interest of being in the book and at what amount, we were watching treasury interest rates by the minute – changes would drive the cost of the deal up or down substantially.  The sale is easier at a higher rate and we can guarantee the interest of investors.  But a lower rate would benefit our ratepayers.  We calculated that the present value (cost in today’s terms that are spread out throughout the transaction) of each basis point change in interest was approximately $600,000.  And remember, there are 100 basis points in every digit of interest.

Finally, in the early afternoon we concluded we had captured the peak of a wave of interest trends and buyer interest and closed the book.  The deal was spectacular, better than our highest expectations:
  1. DC Water received almost $1.1 billion dollars in orders for what was originally a $300 million dollar issuance – almost three times the offer.  This is a remarkable endorsement.  For sober and experienced investors, DC Water is considered a good investment over the time span of 100 years – for its corporate governance, financial management, and operational efficiency. Due to this demand, favorable market conditions, and an awareness of the work that is before us, we decided to increase the transaction by $50 million to $350 million.
  2. As noted, DC Water pays an interest rate that is calculated as a premium over the 30-year US treasury rate.  Of the few century bond issuers, all in the corporate sector or private universities, the range had been from 140 basis points at the low end to 180 basis points at the high end.  We started the day anticipating a 160 basis point “credit spread” over the 30-year benchmark.  By the end of the day, we had so many interested buyers that we were able to push down the interest rate by 15 basis points to +145 – equal to the best rates ever achieved for a century bond!  Each reduction of a basis point equals about $600,000 in savings for DC Water ratepayers in present value.  So 15 basis points saves us nearly $9 million!   This rate is also significantly lower than the rate we achieved last year for tax-exempt 35-year bonds, which is extraordinary.
  3. DC Water is fortunate to have investors that are new to our credit – from investors in century bonds, investors in taxable bonds, and investors in green bonds.  The green bond certification by itself generated almost $100 million in purchase orders. 
Wow, what a run!  We raised $350 million to finance a project that will yield the most significant water quality improvements to the rivers of the nation’s capital since Blue Plains was built.  We saved ratepayer dollars, introduced ourselves to new investors, and spread the cost of a 100 year project over the 100 years of ratepayers who will benefit.  We sold certified green bonds. 

Yet the most profound messages to me are not just about the sparkling financial attributes.  The first is that innovation can, should and must come from every aspect of the water industry.  I was fortunate to have the chance to recruit a CFO from outside our industry.  Yet Mark has brought a whirlwind of new ideas to DC Water, and in this case, was phenomenal in managing this complex transaction.   Second, is that only great teams succeed, for Mark was backed up by Bob Hunt and the entire CFO office, and key employees stepped forward when needed. Carlton Ray stepped up with risk information for a key investor to help win the day.  Sarah Neiderer was excellent in helping to shepherd us through the process of a green certification.  Third, DC Water and other authorities need the best financial advice available.  Dan Hartman and his team at Public Financial Management were absolutely essential and provided wise and steady advice throughout the process.

Finally, the deal is not done without the best investment banking firms.  Goldman Sachs and Barclays worked tirelessly to market this transaction to investors.  They are good at this – processes refined to a smooth and efficient outcome, managed I must say, by people who are open, friendly, helpful and engaged.  And, they know all the investors, and at the critical moment, helped close the deal.

DC Water ratepayers are the most important beneficiary of this innovative financing strategy.  DC Water benefits from stars like Mark Kim.  DC Water benefits from smarter financing that demonstrates our green credentials.

We have only just begun!

Washington, D.C., "Green" Bond Greeted With Strong Investor Demand - Wall Street Journal, July 10, 2014

D.C. Water Bonds Ride Best Long-Debt Gain Since '12: Muni Credit - Bloomberg, July 14, 2014

DC Water liquidates green century bonds - FierceEnergy, July 11, 2014

Monday, June 16, 2014

Innovation in 3 Easy Steps - Part III

I promised a third post to provide examples of innovations we have been able to discover and implement at DC Water.  In considering this goal, I have decided to divide this part into three sections – there’s just too much great progress to cram in one post!

One part I have already published here: Innovation in Action. This first example highlighted DC Water implementing innovations in response to a time critical flooding emergency.  The solution, selected after devising at least several dozen alternatives, includes:
  • policy and finance (backwater valve program and reimbursements);
  • government collaboration (support of green infrastructure and rain barrels at the DC Departments of Transportation and the Environment);
  •  engineering creativity (reusing abandoned sand filters to store storm water and accelerating a tunnel to be used as a giant cistern);
  •  procurement (emergency design-build); and
  • outreach (street-by-street meetings, with tailor made community benefit packages).
In this second part, I focus on an innovation project that was devised over more than a decade of advanced planning for a challenge that is very significant for DC Water, but has a long time horizon.  The third post will provide a longer list of examples of innovation from all over DC Water.

CAMBI and Green Power  

This second example of innovation represents the kind of advanced planning necessary to respond to an “emergency” with a long fuse.  The emergency is the challenge that a facility as large as Blue Plains has with handling the solid material we have removed from the “waste” water.  Blue Plains, which can handle 370 million gallons a day at full treatment – soon to be 515 million gallons, produces on average 60 tractor-trailers filled to the brim with “biosolids.”  This aromatic byproduct of removing refuse from the water is classified Class B biosolids by US EPA regulations – which means the material is not fully sterilized.  Under strict regulatory controls, Class B biosolids can be applied to lands as fertilizers, as long as the product being grown is not intended for human consumption.

The long-fuse emergency is at least three-fold.  First, federal regulations governing Class B biosolids could change – and overnight our beneficial reuse costs for this huge amount of material could skyrocket.  Second, state or local regulations in Maryland or Virginia could change yielding a similar result.  Third, the production of Class B biosolids at Blue Plains entails lime stabilization, centrifuges and long conveyors – processes prone to failure, and certainly in need of significant and costly rebuild.

Thus, without an imminent emergency – but a clear and identified long-term risk and liability – DC Water embarked on a multi-year effort to discover a resolution.  Quickly, an effort mostly to reduce risk and avoid known and recurring maintenance costs, turned into something much more.  Biosolids, like the wastewater they come from, are filled with valuable components.  Biosolids are infused with energy, dripping with nutrients (that is what we are mainly removing after all) and perhaps other recoverable resources.  DC Water realized that it not only has 60 tractor-trailers of potential risk every day, but also 60 tractor-trailers of valuable resources.  This reality is why we now call the flow that comes to Blue Plains “enriched” water rather than “waste” water. 

The question: how to recover that enriched value.

DC Water’s first conclusion was that the first and most significant resource to be recovered is energy.  Digesting biosolids to produce power is not a new concept and has been implemented by wastewater facilities around the world.  Two key factors seemed almost insurmountable in our case:

  1.  Space – there was almost no space available for significant new facilities at Blue Plains.  Despite the enormous scale of the 155 acre site, little space remained.
  2. Time – in parallel to space, any standard digester requires that biosolids remain in the reactor for about 20 days to allow the process to turn the material into methane – which is then burned to produce steam.
At first glance, we were defeated just out of the gate.

Except, my experience is that great engineers and scientists live for these moments.  Designing a standard contraption can be fun and important.  But when a set of obstacles hinders a desirable outcome, particularly if they seem new and unbeatable, then great engineers and scientists light-up and know their purpose.

For DC Water, this fundamental challenge ushered in a ten-year period of research and development focused on speeding the digestion process, reducing the footprint of the digesters and enabling power generation in a vertical orientation.  The team discovered a process used at a few small facilities in Europe – called CAMBI – that promised to speed the process and improve the efficiency of methane generation.  In short, high pressure cookers will break down the cell walls of the biosolids that have been reformatted into a slurry.  Depressurization and cooling after the CAMBI vessels causes the cells to burst.  A relatively standard digestion process thereafter generates more methane from the deconstructed biosolids, and faster too.  Suddenly, a solution seemed possible.

From this initial identification of a technology, the DC Water team orchestrated a series of experiments to determine whether the technology could work for a first ever use in North America and by far the largest installation in the world.

Each of these areas was the subject of scientific and technical research projects, bench studies, and even scale evaluations at facilities using CAMBI in Europe.  After ten years of trial and error refinement of a digester solution, we were ready to present the CAMBI digester project to our Board of Directors.

To cut a long story short, the Board approved a $460 million dollar investment to build the largest CAMBI digester system in the world.  When finished, it will generate 13 megawatts of clean, renewable power (10 net, 3 will be used to power the CAMBI system and digesters), will cut our carbon footprint by one-third (by using our own green power and not purchasing off the grid), cut our truck traffic by one half (a large volume of the biosolids are transformed into green energy and water)  and when all the savings are realized, save our ratepayers more money that the cost of financing the municipal revenue bonds floated to pay for the project.

Many ask how we were able to attain such a mammoth investment by the Board, with no federal help, for a project that is not required by law or custom, but seems the best combination of ultimate savings, risk reduction and stewardship.  The answer is that the Board was confident in the scientific and technical aspects of the proposal – due to the care and discipline of 10 years of research work.  Convinced that this new approach would work, the remaining question was financial.  The financial aspects of the project sold it to a unanimous Board.

By the way, I forgot to mention that the digestion process yields Class A biosolids – essentially a material that is sterilized by the high heat and pressure of CAMBI.  That is generating our next research and analysis of innovation on this topic that could realize new sources of revenue for DC Water.  Having recovered the valuable energy in our biosolids, how can we now realize the value of the nutrients that are still bound up there?  We are also evaluating approaches to harvest even more energy in these Cambi digesters by accepting for a fee commercial food and organic ‘wastes’ to produce even more energy instead of needlessly filling up landfill space.

That is the substance of a future blog!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Innovation in Three Easy Steps - Part II

Last week I kicked off a trilogy of posts with a discussion of why innovation is both so difficult and yet so necessary (Innovation in Three Easy Steps - Part I). Today, I'd like to share some thoughts - based on my own practical experience here at DC Water - on how to make it happen, even in the face of challenges and resistance to change.

Part 2: How to Innovate

Although there are clear impediments to innovation, my experience is that most leaders in our industry understand the need.  Yet the next question is perhaps the most difficult: how do we structure and manage our enterprise to spur innovation – change for the better - when we know the natural motivations that will rise up to challenge change?

We must start with a sense of where we would like to innovate.  My answer is everywhere and on everything!  Here are some topics suitable for innovation, and I promise to provide actual examples of successful innovations from DC Water in every category in the third part of this string of blogs. 
  1. Innovation on how we communicate with our customers.
  2. Innovation on how we finance our work.
  3. Innovation on how we deploy Information Technology to keep our customers informed and engaged.
  4. Innovation on how we upgrade water and sewer mains and laterals.
  5. Innovation on how we monitor the status and condition of our assets, and deploy preventative maintenance.
  6. Innovation on how we turn wastewater plants to resource recovery facilities to realize value from what has been discarded by others.
  7. Innovation on how we cleanse wastewater to save costs – to electricity, to chemicals, to maintenance,
  8. Innovation on how we partner with private firms to benchmark to world-class standards and improve performance and efficiency.
  9. Innovation on how we communicate with the public when we are working in the field.
  10. Innovation on how we enhance benefits – particularly including local hiring – to the people who are paying for the work, and the communities where the work is done.
That leads to the obvious question – how should innovation be done, particularly in the water industry.  Our approach at DC Water:

  • Lead.  Everyone in the enterprise needs to know that innovation is a desirable characteristic coming from the top.  That starts at the level of the top executive, who must be seen to support and drive change.  Demonstrating that commitment must then follow by identifying key leaders who can drive innovation on a daily basis.  At DC Water we have promoted a high-profile research scientist as the “Innovation Chief” in the General Manager’s office.  He has the visibility, access and experience to identify opportunities and challenges to innovation and ensure they receive focus from top management.  At DC Water, innovation is a priority – and that priority starts visibly at the top.

  • Engage.  My experience is that there are hosts of good ideas of how to do things better that are pent up in the staff that does the work.  Ask staff for their ideas on how to improve on our work and highlight and even reward good ideas.  Engage staff-driven ideas first, particularly some visible wins early on, and emphasize that this is about our work and our skills first and not foreign ideas imposed on us.  Engaging staff will yield essential buy-in from the folks who actually must change the way they do their work – and can also help overcome one of the most challenging obstacles to innovative ideas.   Innovation must first be owned by the folks doing the work.

  • Structure.  Founded on executive leadership and engagement of staff, the next question is how to structure the enterprise to support innovation.  Two models are typically considered.  One is to create a program on research and innovation where expertise is identified and built in a stand-alone office.  Many private firms have formal R&D offices with their own management and goals. A second model is to have a matrix structure – where innovation leads are identified within each of the existing structures (treatment facilities, water distribution, sewer systems, maintenance, finance, procurement, etc.) and coordinated and led by a chief typically not in any of the specific offices.  DC Water favors the second model – so that the folks leading both the ideas and response to innovation are embedded in the operations and understand needs and implementation realities.  The matrix model yields a system where innovation is often harder to start, because it must be integrated from the beginning in the operations of a department.  But this initial challenge pays dividends later on, when innovations are owned by operational units and already have internal champions.

  • Research.  Even if staff may not know all the answers, they will know most of the questions that need to be answered to improve performance.  Develop a log of pertinent questions and start formulating a research strategy to develop answers over time.  DC Water has a fantastically successful and relatively cheap research strategy based on collaboration.  The brainchild of our Assistant General Manager Walt Bailey and our Innovations Chief Sudhir Murthy, we collaborate with local universities and businesses to drive dozens of PhD level research projects on issues that are relevant to us.  The universities and their students get relevant research projects to advance their careers and programs.  Private companies join to get in on the ground floor with new technologies and services.  DC Water gains the benefit of new solutions to old problems.  Our largest innovative project – a $460 million dollar investment in a first-of-its-kind biosolid digestion program – was developed after knowledge gained from 40 published papers, secured at low cost in collaborative efforts with three regional universities and several private engineering firms.  Successful research yielding improved performance creates a positive feedback loop that generates the next round of projects.

  • Products.  Once the research begins and ideas begin to germinate, we need to develop practices that are standard in the private sector:
    • Patents: protect the intellectual property that is created with the support of ratepayer money;
    • Non-Disclosure: protect the confidential nature of special programs and approaches that may become commercialized;
    • Compensation: determine how to distribute revenue beyond cost recovery for the inventors of the idea – to create a financial incentive for change; and
    • Consulting: determine if your own employees may become consultants for others seeking to emulate a new idea – again driving the potential for additional revenue for the enterprise and the employee.

      The bottom-line, in more ways than one, is to view innovations not only as an approach to improve productivity, but also to gain revenue by commercializing ideas in the marketplace.  Our ratepayers deserve a financial return for what they have invested in up-front, and these returns can also fund the next round of innovations and help create a financial incentive for employees to participate.
  • Business of Water.  Much of the innovation that is relevant to our organizations pertains not just to our unique technical needs, but the business processes that are common to any customer-service enterprise.  We need to be as lean and innovative in reviewing permits, responding to customer calls, and planning and implementing preventative maintenance to critical facilities.  Spurring innovation needs to cover the costs and work associated with our business procedures as much as it covers how we manage the streams of water.  DC Water is now expanding our successful innovations and research program that focused initially mostly on our technical processes, and specifically focusing on the business of water.

  • Social Media.  Engagement of employees in the first instance, and then the public in the second, is the best way to capture the imagination of those we need to support our work.  Social media – or a fun, interactive web page that allows anyone to suggest a new idea is tailor-made for this objective.  Imagine a virtual suggestion box that can provide an instant forum for ideas, perhaps with fun bells and whistles – like the capability for others to vote thumbs up or down.  DC Water plans to launch an innovations website forum to gather ideas.  From those ideas we will select a few each year to be developed into business plans, and a smaller number funded for serious pilots and collaborative research.  Once we have the system functioning for encouraging internal ideas – and making it fun – we will expand the system to enable any of our customers, or any member of the public for that matter, to suggest how we could do our work better.  The sky is the limit, and we are willing to consider a good new idea from anywhere or anyone.

  • Governance.  Innovation, probably defined into particular business areas familiar to the Board, should become a strategic priority for the Board to drive and review, not just become informed as it comes to fruition.  For DC Water, we looped an innovation strategy into our Board-driven strategic plan – called Blue Horizon 2020.  The areas of innovation that are already on our horizon are integrated into the Board’s strategic plan – and is now a principal way in which our performance is measured.  This is perhaps the holy grail of innovation – when it becomes integral to the fundamental performance up to our governing body.  For DC Water, innovation and Blue Horizon 2020 is now one and the same.
Ultimately, the combination of these steps is designed to capture the imagination!  Capture the imagination of our staff, propel a cascade of innovation ideas that keep coming over time; capture the imagination of our governing bodies and rate agencies that govern our future; capture the imagination of our customers who ultimately must fund our work; and capture the imagination of our political leaders who hold such sway over the entire picture.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Innovation in Action

Flooding in Bloomingdale July 2012 (via @welovedc)
Shortly I will publish the second of my three posts on innovation.  Yet I must take a quick moment now to highlight the success of one particular example of innovation that just helped the people and neighborhoods in Washington, DC in a very practical way.

This story stems from one of the great precursors of innovation – necessity (“Necessity is the motherhood of invention!”).  Many in the Washington region remember we had several (four actually) flooding events in about a two-month period in the Bloomingdale neighborhood and nearby LeDroit Park in 2012.  According to our records going back many decades, we had not had more than two flooding events in any single year, and would often go a decade or more without any flooding in Bloomingdale at all.  So, four events in a row was unprecedented.

The simple problem is that when the intensity of rain is very high (more than an inch an hour), rainwater pours into sewers that capture and transport both sewage and rainwater to Blue Plains for treatment.  This duality explains the name of this type of sewer – which is a combined sewer.

Flooding in Bloomingdale September 2012 (NBC Washington)
When enough rain falls, the flow of stormwater into the combined sewer pipes fills them completely.  The system is designed to allow overflows out of the overwhelmed pipes. Near the rivers of the city, these combined sewer overflows (CSO’s) discharge directly to the waterbodies, ensuring that millions of gallons of rainwater, mixed with sewage, is in the river.  This is certainly a terrible outcome, but a less terrible outcome than having this mixture in basements or city streets.

The huge problem in Bloomingdale, which has combined sewers, is that there are no rivers nearby to accept the overflow when the system is overloaded with rainfall.  The extraordinarily unfortunate result is that the flow in the sewers becomes heavy and pressurized – pushing excess flow up and out manholes into streets and back up sewer laterals into homes.  In 2012, that is exactly what happened – and many of our customers ended up with sewage and rainwater in their basements, often several times in succession.

flooding in Bloomingdale July 2012 (Fox 5)
Our customers were understandably mad.  How could this happen? Why has it not been fixed.  I hosted a very crowded and difficult public meeting in the basement of a church on a Saturday – and heard over and over again how devastating these flooding events are for our customers.

To be fair to DC Water, there is no easy solution to the problem, or we would have happily implemented it years ago.  The mainline sewer that accepts flow from this entire part of the city is called the Northeast Boundary Tunnel Sewer – because when it was built in the 1890s, Florida Avenue was the northeast boundary of the city.  Today, Florida Avenue bounds close-in neighborhoods of the city, and huge amounts of development since 1890 fills that land that was once vacant to the north.  Yet all that development connects to the same sewer on one hand, and all that impervious cover (roofs, roads, parking lots and the rest) generate more stormwater when it rains.  So our old sewer – despite its enormous size (from 7 feet in diameter to 22 feet) – simply can’t handle all the sewage and rainfall if the rain falls fast enough.

One might offer that an obvious solution would be to install a much larger sewer.  That is possible, but would require probably a decade of digging up a major road artery in the city from curb to curb and would cost billions of dollars.  A new sewer would have to be gigantic and would be below all the other elements of infrastructure in road (Washington Gas, Verizon, Pepco, water mains, other communication lines, etc.).  The cost and disruption to the city is simply too great.

This is where innovation came to the rescue.  Necessity is clear – we must develop a plan, that can be implemented and paid for, that can keep combined sewer overflows from flooding these neighborhoods and pushing sewage back into basements.  The obvious solutions were not feasible.  Our team had to be innovative to develop a solution.

And innovate they did – many, many times over.  Leading up the point when we finally had a three part plan (short, medium and long-term), we investigated more than 40 different engineering solutions until we came upon one that worked.  There was creativity, difference of opinion, solutions that initially seemed to work only to be found inadequate with more analysis – a hotbed of innovation that is probably more like what transpires at Google rather than a water utility.  Yet an open approach - that encouraged all ideas, did not frown upon mistakes, and was pushed by necessity – delivered the goods.

Announcement of Flood Relief Plan in December 2012
The innovative three-stage solution that we devised, in concert with Mayor Gray and City Administrator Allen Lew, generated positive press, and hope that this long standing problem would finally be resolved (http://www.georgehawkins.net/2012/12/relief-for-bloomingdale-and-ledroit-park.html).  The summary is that in the short-run we developed an unprecedented program to financially support homeowners to help them install backwater valves that would keep sewage from flowing back into residences. We also developed an action team to clean storm drains and provide sand bags in high rainfall events.  We also funded a rain barrel program to capture rainfall from gutters, and a low impact development project to capture rainfall on one of the main streets that floods.

A cell at the old McMillan Sand Filtration Site
Yet it was the medium-term solution where the creativity kicked into gear.  The engineering team proposed repurposing century old and abandoned sand filters at the old McMillan water treatment site to hold stormwater during heavy rains.  In concert, the team proposed building a piece of a huge tunnel out of schedule to function as a giant underground cistern.  Its diameter was designed to be the same as public transit tunnels, so we could buy a used boring machine quickly and get to work.

The long term solution – already on the books in 2012 but not expected to be completed until 2025 – involves drilling an huge tunnel all the way from the Anacostia River into this central part of Washington- again to capture the overflow.  This tunnel would connect to the tunnel we already are building along the Potomac and Anacostia to capture the CSOs that do drain directly to these rivers.  As part of this plan, we redesigned the tunnel, moved its schedule up three years, and will ultimately connect it to the “cistern” tunnel I mention above.

The short term solutions we implemented immediately.  Backwater valves were installed, rainbarrels too, and our teams scour Bloomingdale ahead of every major rain.  The medium team project moved forward with incredible speed – we wanted the McMillan tank on-line by 2014, and the cistern tunnel (actually deep under First Street) by 2016.  Each deadline required us to move faster than we ever have – using emergency procurement authority, design-build approaches, and birddogging regulatory approvals with the city.

As I write this blog, the Washington DC region is experiencing the heaviest total rainfall ever recorded in April.  Three to five inches have fallen already, and several more may be on the way.  Flooding is a problem all over the region and the warnings persist.

New Green Infrastructure at Work on Irving Street NW
And in Bloomingdale, our solutions are working!  Not perfectly of course, we still have some local flooding on the streets.  But our teams cleaned the storm drains, rainfall was captured in rain barrels, new green infrastructure in several places captured stormwater flow safely – and in a manner that will generate healthy trees and shrubs into the hot summer.  And, water flowed for the first time into the tank at McMillan.  An innovative idea won out over dozens of others, we figured out how to repurpose the old sand filter, we got it done on time, and it is working!  Wow.

Stormwater in repurposed Tank at McMIllan site
I have tremendous respect for the people who design and build these projects – and even more important – were creative enough to dream them up in the first place.  These solutions by themselves do not solve the problem, and we could still have flooding, maybe tonight or tomorrow.  But our enterprise, and the great people who work for it, and doggedly and creatively bringing on-line one solution after another to ultimately solve the problem.

That is innovation worthy of note!