Alabama-Mississippi Waterway Upgrade Offers Clues to Energy Efficient Future

Tenn Tom Waterway energy efficiency improvements

If you’re not familiar with Tenn-Tom now, you’re probably going to be hearing a lot more about it in the future. Tenn-Tom is the Tennessee-Tombigee Waterway, a huge public infrastructure project with a history that dates back to the earliest explorations of the North American continent in the 1500s. After literally centuries of dreaming, Tenn-Tom finally became a reality in 1984.

Built and managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the 30-year-old Tenn-Tom is now due for an upgrade. USACE is using the opportunity to showcase a new, energy efficient approach to infrastructure improvements. If your business is contemplating an infrastructure upgrade, this is a good one to watch for best practices insights.

Tenn-Tom Waterway by the numbers

Tenn-Tom  is a constructed waterway that links the Tennessee River to the Tombigbee and Black Warrior rivers. Stretching from the far northeastern corner of Mississippi to the middle of western Tennessee, it provides mid-continent states with an alternate shipping route to the Port of Mobile and the Gulf of Mexico.

At 111,000 acres, Tenn-Tom counts as a major U.S. civic infrastructure project. In addition to 10 locks and dams that enable barge traffic, the waterway accommodates recreation for an estimate 3 million visitors per year.

USACE also touts Tenn-Tom as a habitat enhancement for wildlife, although the Natural Resources Defense Council opposed the project in the 1970s. For those of you old enough to remember the snail darter, that would be the reason.

Energy efficiency upgrades For Tenn-Tom

USACE is using Tenn-Tom as a high-profile showcase for its third-party financing tool for energy efficiency upgrades, called the Energy Savings Performance Contract (ESPC).

Like the now-familiar power purchase agreements for solar power, ESPC is a contract that enables you to get energy efficiency upgrades with no up-front investment. You pay it off over a period of years based on the money you save from reduced utility bills.

In the private sector, the company Noesis provides a good example of how the energy market is expanding to embrace ESPC-style financing for energy efficiency upgrades.

Under the Tenn-Tom ESPC, the expected savings will be a little more than $5 million over the life of the contract, which is a hair under 22 years.

You can check out USACE’s announcement of the new Tenn-Tom energy efficiency upgrades for a summary of the fail-safe mechanisms that are built into its ESPC’s. The bottom line is that you want to make sure that the improvements really will produce enough savings to pay for the project within a reasonable amount of time. USACE caps that off at 25 years.

Low-Hanging Energy Efficiency Fruit

For Tenn-Tom, USACE is focusing on lighting at the locks and dams. Lighting is one of the most straightforward ways to produce energy efficiency savings across a wide variety of built environments.

The contract for the lighting upgrades comes to $2.8 million, which was awarded to Siemens Government Technologies earlier this year. While the length of the contract is almost 22 years, the actual construction work will start this October and is expected to be completed by spring 2015.

Here’s John Coho, USACE energy coordinator and senior adviser for environmental compliance, on the topic:

This project award demonstrates that we can use ESPCs to leverage third-party funding at our civil works sites to help us reach our national sustainability goals and energy independence. It is going to be a model for others down the road, and I fully expect we will be able to use it at sites along other rivers as well.

Given its growing portfolio of renewable energy projects and energy efficiency projects, USACE is in a perfect position to use the anticipated success of the Tenn-Tom upgrades to leverage more ESPC’s for other Defense Department projects.

Image courtesy of USACE

Follow me on Twitter and Google+.

Tina writes frequently for Triple Pundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

Leave a Reply