Waste Not, Want Not: Upgrades Demonstrate Ultimate in Sustainability

The upcoming Engineers Week presents an opportunity for engineering professionals of all types to celebrate an industry with a considerable influence on the landscape of communities near and far.

Many firms and professionals in the local community are actively embodying the 2022 theme, “Reimagining the Impossible.” They’re doing so with projects that present new possibilities for existing spaces, or completely new, society-transforming concepts and the structured funding and programs to support them — with an eye on the smart and responsible use of resources.

A Senior Civil Engineer, shareholder and LEED accredited professional (Building Design + Construction), Matthew Hubel isolated Schemmer’s work with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission on stormwater management at a popular local park.

“The goals of this project are to provide a water-focused educational space within the park and eliminate soil erosion and sedimentation,” he said. “The solution will be a system of stormwater management ponds incorporated into existing unutilized open spaces of the park, designed such that the ponds blend seamlessly into the natural surroundings.”

Notably, Hubel said each of the projects Schemmer undertakes in Omaha, Council Bluffs and Lincoln are subject to stormwater management requirements, as stipulated under the Clean Water Act and to benefit communities by reducing erosion and impacts to streams and rivers. Each project, he added, is tailored to clients’ goals and budget. So, they are all unique.

Proposed Standing Bear Lake Station.
(Photo provided by Farris Engineering)

“Over the past few years, our communities have been a direct witness to the significant impact water from rainstorm events can have on our daily lives,” Hubel said, when asked about their importance.

“Left unchecked, stormwater can damage our homes through flooding and pollute our lakes and rivers.

“The change in climate and weather that we have been experiencing are only going to increase the importance of controlling and treating stormwater.”

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Additionally, recent examples of broad sustainability efforts have included exceeding energy efficiency beyond “the code,” incorporating groundwater recharge into a stormwater management facility, and working with contractors to use local materials.

One of Schemmer’s core values is to “utilize sustainable design in all our work, regardless of the project requirements,” he summed up.

In Darin Cielocha’s almost 30 years in the construction industry, the business development executive with Farris Engineering cannot recall a time like the present, with such an influx of new construction and renovation projects competing for resources (people, materials, time).

“Usually, when new construction projects are up, renovation/rehab projects look to take a back seat,” he said. “In today’s world, that is not the case.”

In fact, Cielocha said Farris has been fortunate to work with many state and local partners in Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Wyoming, both Dakotas, Colorado, New Mexico and Oklahoma. A list of these projects included: Upgrades to UNMC’s utilities at the Omaha campus; University of Nebraska-Lincoln Andrews Hall HVAC renovation and fire protection upgrades; Iowa Western Community College utility upgrades; VA Omaha Hospital lab renovation and radiology upgrades; and the replacement of a 1,000-ton chiller for global animal health company Zoetis.

As he explained, there is nothing “greatly unique” about these projects. But the projects illustrate, according to Cielocha, how the firm has been faced with upgrading a lot of existing structures throughout the Midwest, including as the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs upgrades and updates five-plus facilities in the Dakotas.

“We are part of design teams helping to design new schools and medical facilities in Iowa, Kansas, and New Mexico,” he added. “We are working on Department of Defense projects we cannot even talk about.”

And, notably, Cielocha asserted there is “no act of sustainability” that is greater than to renovate or update an existing building.

“The University of Nebraska has committed millions of dollars in upgrading and maintaining their existing buildings, without increasing a signal square foot of occupied space on their campus over the next 25 years,” he said. “That doesn’t even include the new practice facility and other new buildings that the University looks to build new in the next several years.

“There is nothing more admirable we can do as a generation than to invest in upgrading our current buildings and facilities. This allows us [to stop] adding to our landfills and really embodies the ideology of sustainability.”

Engineering Minds Power Progress

Even within the past 20 years, Senior Vice President and Chief Operations Officer Gina Langel, P.E., said engineering work at the Metropolitan Utilities District has changed significantly – with more focus on innovation.

“This is vital to ensure the safety of employees and customers while keeping costs down,” she said. “Engineers must think outside the box to provide solutions that offer the least amount of disruption and inconvenience to customers and the community.”

Project-oriented “notables” included M.U.D’s upgrade to its Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) Plant and its Infrastructure Replacement (IR) Program. The former project involves replacing equipment at a “peak shaving” plant that has been in service since 1975. Such facilities provide additional supply during peak demand periods, reducing the need to buy costly volumes on the spot market.

Slated for completion by 2025, the upgrade will reportedly more than double the facility’s daily output. To the latter project, the IR Program addresses the aging infrastructure to support safe drinking water and natural gas – some of which dates back to the 1880s.
“To replace these critical, aging gas and water mains, the District significantly increased financial contributions for an enhanced IR program in 2008,” Langel said. “Gas and water rates include monthly fees to provide long-term funding.”

She added that, whenever possible, the projects are done in conjunction with road or redevelopment projects or Omaha’s combined sewer separation work to save money and minimize inconvenience.

Ultimately, Langel said the increased daily output at the LNG Plant will enhance reliability and save money; a nod to the peak shaving concept, she said during the “polar vortex” last February, there were record gas prices.

But plants like the LNG “shielded the District from spending an additional $100 million on gas purchase costs over a one-week period,” Langel said.

Over the near term, the IR program is reportedly targeting the replacement of 16 miles and 40 miles of water and gas mains, respectively, in 2022.

“The program is special as it’s a collaborative effort by infrastructure engineers, designers, operational staff, construction crews, with management and board support that produces our successful program,” she said.

Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) Construction Management-Energy Production Manager Megan Walker highlighted how the utility is adding up to 600 megawatts each of solar and natural gas generation for “peaking purposes.” The project is known as Power with Purpose, and she said it’s needed to maintain resiliency, reliability, customer load growth and for future power generation.

“PwP enables OPPD to retire our oldest North Omaha Station natural gas-fired units and refuel the remaining units from coal to modernized, more efficient natural gas,” Walker said. “It allows us to integrate more renewable energy into our system, supporting our goal of net-zero carbon production by 2050.”

She also noted how OPPD is building three separate transmission lines in Sarpy County, accommodating anticipated load growth as the population grows.

“We held several virtual public meetings in 2021 and continue to inform and work with our customers and other stakeholders in the vicinity of our Sarpy Southwest Transmission Project,” she said, adding construction is slated for July with completion by May 2023.

Walker underscored how PwP is “one of the largest renewable investments of its kind in the Midwest,” while Media Specialist Jodi Baker reinforced how the Sarpy County project means that people don’t have to worry about keeping the lights on and their homes, schools, and businesses powered as the area grows.

Meanwhile, Wildlife and Natural Resource Specialist Chris Vrtiska put a spotlight on its Prairies in Progress. Began in 2018, this process of building pollinator habitats reduces ground maintenance costs and honors its mission, partly, of being an environmentally friendly energy services provider.

“In a joint effort with the Save Our Monarchs Foundation, we initially converted 325 acres of our property to native grasses and other plants,” he said. “We’ve been steadily increasing pollinator habitat around our facilities, as practical. We added six more acres of habitat in 2021, putting us at 331 acres, currently.”

Less maintenance means less mowing, using less fertilizer and other chemicals. Instead, Vrtiska referred to a combination of deep rooting grasses and pollinators, which provides a good habitat for the likes of monarchs and birds, and represent “enormous carbon sinks” (a reference to carbon dioxide-absorbing capacity).

Building Services and Operations Manager Jake Farrell noted how all of its facility lighting is being changed to LED, part of a bigger process of modernizing its building over the next 30 years. These efforts, according to Farrell, span the design of new buildings, the incorporation of sustainable efforts in remodels and “life cycle management” of equipment.

This approach shows, Baker added, in its LEED-certified Omaha Service Center. Features include solar panels, water-efficient landscaping, a water-to-water heat pump and solar tank. It’s also been adding hybrid and electric vehicles at both the Omaha and Elkhorn Service Centers and organization wide — to the tune of 70 vehicles — from hybrid passenger cars, SUVs and a pickup, to plug-in hybrid bucket trucks and all-electric cars.

The likes of electric forklifts and utility carts have also been added.

In all, Baker said OPPD’s portfolio is approximately 40% renewable energy, and growing.
“We’re working toward a goal of net-zero carbon by 2050,” she said.

In part, OPPD is exploring various “pathways to decarbonization,” another way of referring to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions or the “carbon footprint.”

Funding Fuels Progress

The irony of President Joe Biden’s scheduled Pittsburgh visit in late January (to discuss his infrastructure spending plan, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as IIJA) occurring just hours shy of the collapse of a major local bridge, is not lost on anyone.

Well before the latest headline-grabbing infrastructure-oriented disaster, local experts weighed in on the implications of what is being characterized as the “largest long-term investment in our infrastructure and competitiveness in nearly a century.”

“The federal Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act will have a significant positive impact on our communities,” said Schemmer’s Hubel. “These funds are going to allow work to proceed on improvements to our roads, bridges and utilities that have been deferred due to a lack of funding. The better our infrastructure, the healthier and safer it will make our communities.”

The firm, he added, is looking forward with city, state and federal agencies to see these projects to fruition.

While Cielocha of Farris applauded the plan and its impact in the long run, he expressed uncertainty about “how we are going to be able to tackle all the things that need to get done in the next couple of years.”

“We need to capture the wealth of experience that continues to exist in the workforce and develop the next generation of design professionals and engineers,” he said. “That is where the next ‘pinch point’ lies.”

M.U.D.’s Langel approached the IIJA through the lens of Congress signaling its intention to eliminate lead water services lines through the bipartisan infrastructure act and American Rescue Plan.

“Lead service lines, owned by the homeowner, may threaten water quality to individual homes,” she said. “M.U.D. is committed to working with our partners in city, county, and state government to ensure those federal dollars, intended to replace lead service pipes, are used for that purpose.”

Senior Engineering Technician Sviatlana Zhuromskaya works on plans
for infrastructure replacement projects at M.U.D. headquarters.
(Photo provided by M.U.D.)

OPPD’s Baker said the funding would greatly help the power industry as a whole: “Supporting energy infrastructure, including electric vehicle supply equipment, investments in grid resiliency and smart grid technology, cybersecurity, and federal support for research, development, and deployment of advanced energy technologies.

“This kind of support is incredibly important as public power utilities continue to transition to cleaner energy sources, while keeping service reliable and resilient, and keeping rates affordable for our customers,” she remarked.

According to WhiteHouse.gov information, based on formula funding alone, Nebraska could receive $2 billion for federal aid highway apportioned programs and $225 million for bridge replacement and repairs over five years.

Within that time frame, the state would reportedly be on the receiving end of $186 million in funds for public transportation improvements. Other notable investments include building a plug-in EV charger network, broadband coverage expansion, cyberattack and weatherization protections, water safety (i.e., the aforementioned elimination of lead service lines and pipes), and airport infrastructure development.