Iowa is using State Energy Program funds to improve energy efficiency in wastewater treatment facilities to benefit rural communities across the state.

Striving for Equity in Rural Energy Resources

Revitalizing rural America means giving it the same access to resources and opportunities as urban areas. As part of a strategy to drive this rural-urban equity, the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA), in partnership with the University of Iowa (UI), is working to develop innovative energy and wastewater solutions for rural Iowa communities where municipal wastewater treatment costs often stifle local economic vitality.

Through the Iowa Wastewater and Waste to Energy Research Program (IWWERP), IEDA and UI spearheaded the construction of a state-of-the-art tech park and have supported nearly 50 communities in improving the energy efficiency of their wastewater treatment facilities and testing new technologies to capture nutrients and generate renewable natural gas. 

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) State Energy Program (SEP) provided funding to support this program, which helps advance shared goals of promoting economic growth, improving environmental quality, reducing energy costs and waste, and bolstering the resilience of energy infrastructure.

What Is Wastewater and Why Treat It?

Wastewater is storm runoff and water used by homes, industries, and businesses that can be treated by removing harmful substances like excessive phosphorus and nitrogen, bacteria, viruses, mercury, lead, and more, before being released back into the environment. These substances can pollute land, water, and agriculture, making food dangerous to consume and recreation areas too polluted to enjoy. 

Not only that, but poor wastewater can cause water scarcity, waste energy, and overall contribute to climate change and poor public health. Proper wastewater treatment is vital in maintaining healthy environments for humans and nature alike and ensuring water security.

Proper wastewater treatment also has a variety of economic benefits for communities. Treated wastewater is an effective fertilizer yielding healthier crops and can even be used to generate electricity. More efficient wastewater treatment can also unlock savings for ratepayers, as communities have experienced a 24% increase in wastewater treatment rates from 2008 to 2016 from aging, leaky infrastructure. 

As many U.S. wastewater treatment facilities are nearing the end of their lives, revitalizing them, and building new ones can increase energy efficiency and deliver lower prices for consumers, especially those in rural and low-income communities with fewer resources to upgrade facilities.

Spurring Innovation in Wastewater Treatment

The University of Iowa released a short video highlighting the features of the Tech Park and mission of IWWERP.

To better support communities’ wastewater needs and spur innovation in wastewater treatment technologies, IEDA launched IWWERP in December 2020 with a $3.8 million grant award to UI. UI then partnered with Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Iowa Water Environment Association, and Iowa Rural Water Association to construct the IWWERP Tech Park at the Iowa City Municipal Water Resource Recovery Plant.
The Tech Park features a state-of-the-art, $1.5 million revolving algal biofilm research facility, which was commissioned in December 2022, and the UI main campus offers full-service labs for water chemistry, microbiology, algae biomass, and biogas characterizations, along with a wide range of instruments. 

Water treatment facility

BES Water Solutions is working with IWWERP to optimize biological and physical-chemical treatment processes for small-town wastewater lagoons. The units can remove ammonia and suspended solids while providing pH adjustment and disinfection. Photo courtesy of Iowa Economic Development Authority.

IWWERP researchers work closely with commercial vendors, such as technology manufacturers and engineering consultants, to develop and test new and improved technologies. Five private companies are currently participating in the optimization of technologies at the IWWERP Tech Park or at field locations with IWWERP support. 

Communities can also take advantage of IWWERP’s comprehensive analytical capabilities and technologies to address their unique local wastewater treatment needs. As of October 2022, nearly 50 communities in Iowa have been impacted by IWWERP activities. 

Reaching Clean Energy Goals

Communities that have received assistance via the first annual Great Wastewater Treatment Tour Across Iowa include:
LeClaire, North Liberty, Washington, Mount Pleasant, Pleasantville, Eldora, Sheldon, Orange City, and Atlantic.

The wastewater treatment facility in Atlantic, Iowa, which treats roughly one million gallons of wastewater per day, was the first to realize early energy savings from the Tour. The Atlantic facility implemented changes to the aeration sequence which resulted in better nutrient removal and cost savings of nearly $5,000 per year—a significant chunk of money for a facility with an annual budget of $95,000.

IWWERP is also working with Sioux City to improve production of renewable natural gas through co-digestion of non-municipal organic wastes. After a recent digester cleanout caused a major loss in biomethane production, IWWERP provided technical assistance to the city and helped increase renewable natural gas production by 18% and physical gas revenue by 25%.

IWWERP is a great example of how states can leverage federal funding and partnerships with industry, universities, and municipalities to empower rural communities while also cleaning the environment, generating energy and cost savings, and creating new energy opportunities. DOE looks forward to continuing its support for IEDA’s efforts to expand Iowa’s economy while protecting and improving Iowa’s natural environment.

The DOE State Energy Program provides funding and technical assistance to all 50 states, five U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia to enhance energy security, advance state-led energy initiatives, and increase energy affordability. The State Energy Program emphasizes the state’s role as the decision maker and administrator for program activities within the state that are tailored to their unique resources, delivery capacity, and energy goals.