What Is a Water Utility in a Digital World?

digital earth

How Digital Technology Can Be the Fundamental Agent of Change in the Modernization of Global Water Infrastructure

By Gigi Karmous-Edwards & Will Sarni

Global water infrastructure is underfunded. It is in need of repair, replacement and expansion to ensure access to water for sustained economic development, business growth and public health.

Currently, approximately 4 billion people live in water scarce and stressed regions with nearly 1 billion people without access to safe drinking water and almost 1 million deaths per year from water borne diseases. The World Economic Forum projects that by 2030, the world will face a 40 percent “gap” between water supply and demand under business as usual practices (e.g., public policy and technology). This gap will manifest itself in difficult and painful allocation choices impacting the public sector, businesses and civil society. Current impacts of water scarcity and pollution are already significant as evidenced by conditions in the Middle East, India, Africa, China, Latin American and the United States. According to a recent World Bank study, projected economic impacts of water scarcity are estimated to be as much as 6 percent negative GDP in certain regions by 2050.

There is an urgent need to develop innovative approaches to solve global water scarcity and water quality challenges. Traditional financing solutions and technologies alone are inadequate to address these challenges. Centralized water systems are expensive to build and operate, and in several cases, are struggling to meet the needs of the ever-increasing global population. Fortunately, we now have an opportunity to deploy more cost-effective technology solutions such as new water sources (e.g., air moisture capture) and decentralized water treatment systems (e.g., building and community scale).

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that by 2025 water will make up the majority of global infrastructure investment with water spending exceeding $1 trillion (USD) that year. This amount is nearly triple the amounts needed for investments in electricity or transport. For developing countries alone, an estimated $103 billion (USD) per year is needed to finance water, sanitation and wastewater treatment.

Trends

There are signs that the global water sector is changing as it begins to embrace a digital transformation. This transformation for utilities is a migration from a data-rich environment to more of a knowledge-rich environment.

The digital transformation consists of the adoption of technologies such as: remote sensing (e.g., sensors, satellite and drone), asset management (e.g. inventory of assets and maintenance), customer engagement (e.g., water use and service), predictive analytics (e.g., asset failure prediction), artificial intelligence (e.g., asset management), augmented reality and virtual reality (e.g., water utility maintenance and training) and cybersecurity (e.g., access to customer information and service disruption).

The value and impact of digital technologies in transforming centralized water utilities is clear. However, there may be an opportunity to leverage these technologies to accelerate the adoption of alternative water supply and demand solutions. This is not to say these new technologies will completely replace more traditional water infrastructure solutions. Instead, there is now an expanded “menu” of technology solutions beyond traditional infrastructure solutions.

From Wastewater to Water and Resource Renewal

The water sector could see significant changes for wastewater utilities driven by innovative digital technologies. Wastewater utilities are ready for alternative technologies as a significant portion of the expense of large, outside the city limits, centralized treatment plants operate with long-distance pipeline infrastructure and the cost of pumping liquids in and out of the city. However, in most situations, the benefits of economies of scale for centralized treatment plants regarding the manual resources to operate far outweighed the cost of the infrastructure and pumping. Integrating digital technologies, such as using sensors for remote monitoring and machine learning and other AI for insights and operational efficiency, provide a means to control and operate smaller decentralized water units remotely, thus breaking down the economies of scale argument for centralized water treatment.

There could also be opportunity for a “blended utility” or “hybrid utility.” Imagine water and wastewater utilities that integrate conventional water supply with off-grid air moisture capture technologies (e.g., Zero Mass Water) and localized water treatment systems (e.g., Organica). Expansion of services could include a range of technology choices connected through a digital network to optimize asset and resource performance and customer service. In a world of increased demand for water and the increasing impact of climate change, this may be the strategy for a resilient and sustainable water utility. Examples of off-grid water and localized water treatment are provided below.

An Off-Grid-Localized Drinking Water Supply

Imagine harvesting localized clean drinking water out of the air without accessing an electric grid. Zero Mass Water (ZMW) is using innovative technologies to harvest water from the air. The ZMW SOURCE Hydropanel uses solar energy, proprietary materials and a specific engineering process to leverage the thermodynamics of water vapor to produce safe off-grid drinking water. An essential feature of the SOURCE is the monitoring and control via a central NOC (Network Operations Center). The company relies on sensor technology, weather data, and machine learning algorithms to optimize operations. SOURCE is currently deployed globally to address critical water challenges such as natural disaster relief, lack of access to safe drinking water, or temporary communities such as refugees. Off-grid, localized technologies, integrated with digital solutions for monitoring, control, and optimization, for both water supply and treatment will likely continue to scale to address water scarcity and poor water quality challenges.

A Sustainable Localized Wastewater Treatment Plant

Imagine a wastewater plant in the middle of the city that looks and smells like a botanical garden and reclaims treated water for non-potable uses more efficiently than traditional wastewater plants. Organica Water builds unique, localized wastewater treatment plants that leverage natural systems for parts of the treatment operation and provides integrated digital oversight and control and automation. Organica’s treatment operation takes advantage of the biology of nature’s plant root systems as an ideal habitat for beneficial microorganisms that efficiently consume the wastewater contaminants. This results in less waste, reduced operational costs and more sustainable use of water, as compared to traditional treatment plants. Use of natural systems such as the plant’s root system to leverage nature’s mechanisms (oxygen collected from air released through roots) for aeration and microorganism activity, thus reducing required oxygen pumping, as well as chemical dosing. The overriding factor for lowering operational costs comes from Organica’s control and automation based on IoT (sensors), hydraulic modeling and AI software. Without the emphasis on these critical digital technologies, it will be difficult to scale localized treatment plants. This is yet another example of “green innovation,” and how the combination of digital technologies, such as IoT, AI, machine learning and nature’s mechanisms (natural systems) can help achieve sustainable solutions in our water systems.

Digital Water Technologies

Let’s examine an overview of digital technology categories and applications for water utilities.

Sensors & Data – Reliability of Data is Key

Fundamentally, digital is about using data to make informed and optimized decisions. Data used can come from calculated key parameter indicators (KPIs), collected KPIs, images, text and sensors. Sensor data reliability is critical, as such, the data retrieved must be reliable, otherwise faulty data can translate to faulty insights which could have detrimental implications. Although some novel sensors now include automatic cleaning devices (e.g. using pressurized air or mechanical brushes or wipers), additional development is required to increase the reliability of sensors and reduce maintenance efforts. A few solutions specialize in providing quality-checked and reconciled data for monitoring, smarter control, and online simulation (e.g., inCTRL). Other sensing-based technologies include satellite imaging for efficient leak detection, (e.g., Utilis). Wastewater utilities are using smart remote sensing products that are placed in manholes to provide early detection and prediction on sewage condition (e.g., Kando, Smart Cover Systems).

Data Accessibility – Adoption of an API Strategy

Water utilities are now dealing with large volumes of data that comprise both structured (easily searchable types) and unstructured (video, satellite images, social media, etc.) data coming from disparate sources. Most utilities say that accessing data from our legacy systems is still a challenge. The key to maximizing the use of big data is the ability to access the right data when it is needed by the applications. We see an increase in the use of application programing interfaces (APIs). APIs provide a programmatic way for retrieving data by any software application. Various software applications across the utilities can then use APIs to access the needed data from existing legacy systems, sensors, and other applications regardless of data location, utility department, nor functionality to be achieved. The same data sets can be used and reused for multiple purposes (multiple applications), therefore increasing the value of digital solutions.

Data Analytics – Machine Learning (ML)

Although we are seeing an increase in the use of ML within the water sector, we are still only at a fraction of where we need to be. Machine learning is a core sub-area of artificial intelligence (AI) that usually comprises a set of algorithms that learns the normal behavior of a system from the retrieved data and develops a model to use for predicting future behavior. There are several data analytical companies armed with data scientist and application developers focusing on the water sector, (e.g., Emagin, Meniscus). These companies develop custom software based on utilities’ needs. Today, most hardware companies (e.g., pump, PRV manufacturers) also provide software services as part of the product enriched with data analytics for insights, optimization and future automation.

Cybersecurity

Most companies selling data analytics software products offer cloud-based solutions, and some also provide on-premise solutions. Because utilities are critical infrastructure, cybersecurity is a high priority and often cited as a reason for utilities insisting on not using could-based solutions and requiring on-premise solutions. For the most part, cloud-based solutions utilizing cloud servers from well-known service providers like Amazon AWS or Microsoft Azure, are indeed secure. However, the future utility will need to constantly enhance its operations with innovative cybersecurity solutions (e.g., Senrio, Radflow), as well as migrate its software to cloud-based solutions.

Hydraulic Modeling – Digital Double

Today, utilities mainly use hydraulic models for planning and expanding purposes once every few years or so. Ultimately, the utility of the future will use real-time hydraulic modeling with real-time sensor data input instead of mathematical assumptions to accurately simulate the live utility operations. This will provide a digital double for utility operators to see anomalies as they occur, as well as have the ability to run “what-if” scenarios to predict and prevent failures. A few companies are taking baby steps in this direction (e.g., CitiLogics, Innovyze).

Asset Management – Mobility the Major Change Agent

Another significant trend in the water sector is the evolution of asset management – the practice of managing the lifecycle of infrastructure capital assets while providing a highly reliable service to customers. Today, most utilities are working towards having every asset recorded within their GIS system with structured and unstructured data from across all departments for actionable insights to decrease costs and risks (e.g., Redeye, Innovyze).

The integration of critical data structures from across utility departments, such as the finance department, work order systems, GIS system and SCADA, etc., along with AI to provide more accurate predictive asset management, can result in asset life extension. A principal change agent for reliable asset management has been the increase in mobility. Mobility can be defined as providing access to data and critical applications from anywhere by anyone (front office, back office and executives) who has permission, thus dramatically increasing productivity and empowering all staff of utilities. Utilities like Suez North America have placed great emphasis on improving mobility technology for all staff members. The future utility will utilize all relevant data for every asset. The use of cutting-edge-technologies such as virtual and augmented reality will also aid utility staff in asset assessment and preventative maintenance (e.g., Fujitsu).

Asset management is also about mitigating risk. As such, novel business models are emerging that allow technology vendors to share the risk of implementing innovative technologies with utilities. New business models surrounding XaaS (anything as a service) – such as pumps as a service, operations as a service and platform as a service – are popping up everywhere in other sectors but is also making an impact in the water sector (e.g., Grundfos Cloud-connected pumps).

Customer Experience and Engagement – Transparency

One of the top priorities for a utility is its customers. Improving overall customer experience involves both transparent engagement and the delivery of cost-efficient, reliable services. Sharing data and data insights via machine learning with customers could help to build trust even if the utilities share information not favorable to utility operations, such as outages or water quality issues. Utilities have been reluctant to share data with other utilities, cities and customers (specifically about water quality) and may need the help of future technologies such as blockchain (e.g., Power Ledger). Blockchain technology has the potential to expedite the transfer of data between parties via open exchanges in some cases directly from the sensors, resulting in more open transparency for all stakeholders.

Customers will start to become aware of the work and effort it takes to provide clean water and start to value water as the life source of society with increased transparency and engagement. Many utilities are using engagement tools to help improve the overall customer experience (e.g., Dropcountr, FATHOM, WaterSmart). It is possible that the utility of the future will engage with customers more than ever before, and will focus on customization of services, as well as creating new and novel services, such as real-time quality monitoring at point of use. This will likely result in utilities shifting workers from field work to customer service. There is also an increase in customization of rate and payment structure in a future utility.

Path Forward

Imagine a blended or hybrid utility that incorporates the positive attributes of centralized water systems with those of off-grid and localized systems “powered” with digital solutions to optimize performance with improved customer engagement. Imagine customers and utilities monitoring water quality at the tap on a real-time basis with the ability to intervene to prevent health impacts.

Digital technologies have transformed the energy sector with a move toward micro-grids and the adoption of renewables. The water sector will benefit from the experience of other sectors in adopting new solutions as it works to ensure universal access to safe drinking water, water for business growth and economic development.

Imagine water taking the front and center role in smart cities – that is, utilities expanding their reach for data and insights beyond the borders of their operation. Utilities can better accomplish this by having a fundamental understanding of the current and future status of the water supply sources (ground water, lakes, rivers, neighboring cities, etc.) that service end customers and needs for better supply management and customized customer service. Also imagine the majority of water will not only be recycled, but beneficial resources (nutrients, microorganisms) will be harvested including the conversion to energy. Nutrients harvested can then be used to enrich depleted soils for agriculture, helping to solve the water-energy-food nexus. Digital technologies are the fundamental agent of change for this reality.

What needs to change to make this happen? Innovation in public policy, technology, financing and business models. Perhaps the most challenging is acceptance by civil society that water is a valuable and strategic resource. As a result, we need to reinvent how we deliver water in a reliable and equitable manner.


Gigi Karmous-Edwards
Digital Business Lead Director | Amane Advisors

Gigi Karmous-Edwards consults with global water technology companies on their digital strategy and building sustainable business growth in a fragmented market. She also works with water utilities on technology adoption, building an innovative culture,  and guiding their digital transformation journey. She is a thought leader and is often invited to speak at international conferences. She is very passionate about the use of digital technologies to help solve the Water-Energy-Food nexus.  She serves on advisory boards and is a member of the AWWA MAC council.

Will Sarni
Founder and CEO | Water Foundry

Will Sarni is an internationally-recognized thought leader on water strategy and innovation. He has authored numerous books and articles and presented on the value of water, innovations in digital water technology, the circular economy and the energy-water-food nexus.

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