Sourced from Next City
Five years ago, Philadelphia civil engineer Dennis Shelly glimpsed a business opportunity lying out in the open — or more precisely, he spied that opportunity from 22,000 miles in orbit. Satellite images made plain an idea back on Earth that has since helped him grow a business that moves water around just below the planet’s surface.
Shelly heads PEER Environmental, an engineering and design firm that in its fifth year is well on the way to revenues of $1 million. PEER’s specialty is green infrastructure — green rooftops, rain gardens or infiltration beds — on big plots of land. This, to shift stormwater so that it’s absorbed into the ground and kept out of the city sewers. Shelly’s clients are rewarded handsomely by the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD), which not only cuts their water bills — by as much as 80 percent, which can translate to tens of thousands of dollars per year — but also supplies grant funding to execute the projects. His job is the behind-the-scenes (well, underground, mostly) work of using gravity, stone, pipes, dirt and plants to manage how fast water seeps into the ground, where it can soak in gradually or even evaporate.
In 2010, the PWD changed how it calculated stormwater fees for large private customers, including big institutions and property owners. Instead of levying a fee based on monthly metered usage, the utility rolled out new rate calculations over several years based on how much area of a business’s surface area, including roofing, was covered by impermeable concrete or asphalt — materials that channeled water away from buildings and into the overtaxed sewer system. The less permeable the materials, the higher the fee.
PEER owes part of its success to that change in fee structure. While working as a consultant to determine stormwater rate corrections for the 130-acre campus of LaSalle University in the Logan neighborhood of the city, Shelly was struck by an observation. He scanned satellite images of the campus, looking over the grounds, parking lots, buildings, sidewalks and other exposure, and then took out a calculator to crunch the numbers. He discovered that were LaSalle to mitigate its stormwater runoff, the school could reap water bill savings of up to $100,000 a year. Shelly lobbied the facilities department in December 2013 and made no progress. He then took his idea to the college’s trustees and got an invitation to talk it up in a meeting. So a business was born.
Shelly had targeted a $5-million grant application for the entire campus. The PWD, however, limited the grant and the first project was circumscribed to one part of the south end of school on a downward sloping hill where water was collected in a flood-control basin. The engineer designed two rain gardens there as well as a third below a parking lot, a first phase that was finished in 2015. When those were done, enough funds were left to start work on five underground infiltration beds completed in 2016 beneath parking lots in the West campus and an additional one this past summer and still another to be completed. The last will be finished in the next few months, bringing the total project to 17.7 acres financed entirely with $2.2 million in PWD funds and saving LaSalle about $75,000 a year on stormwater fees.