The Utility of the Future is Digital. Are You on the Right Path?

The new year provides a platform to contemplate the shape of the Water Resources Utility of the Future. Signs indicate that future is digital.

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Innovation drives forward steadily in the water and wastewater sectors. Now and then, it’s worth stopping to take a high-level view and ask: What is the actual shape of things to come?

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies has done that in a July 2017 paper, Envisioning the Digital Utility of the Future. The key word there is “digital.” NACWA envisions the embrace of digital technology, in many forms, as essential to progress toward goals like improving environmental performance while cutting costs and boosting revenue.

The NACWA paper posits data-driven decision-making, powered by digital technology, as critical to moving beyond mere Clean Water Act compliance and beyond business as usual. “The latest technology — miniature sensors, handheld devices, cloud storage, software programs — gives organizations the ability to gather and see, in the blink of an eye, information integrated from all points across the utility enterprise,” the paper states. “Extraordinary insights are delivered that can inform effective, cost-saving decision-making in real time.”

What does this mean in practical terms? NACWA spells out how digital technology can help operators and managers transform their utilities in eight essential areas. Here is a quick look:

Reduce operational costs. Digital technology helps track, compile, and analyze data in real time on energy use, chemical consumption, pump efficiency and more. By spotting and analyzing trends, operators can fine-tune key equipment, like aeration blowers, to make sure they perform as cost-effectively as possible.

Manage and mitigate risks. Digital asset management systems using a variety of sensors on equipment can help operators spot problems before unplanned failures occur, costing big money and disrupting processes.

Enhance the customer experience. As water gets scarcer and more expensive, customers want better control of their usage. Digital technology can help water utilities convey metering data to customers in real time and notify them of leaks. NACWA believes this and other forms of customer engagement “will soon become the norm.”

Improve financial execution. Digital technology can help utilities move beyond management using cumbersome spreadsheets. By collecting and analyzing financial data down to the level of individual customers, utilities are in a better position to understand their financial commitments, make long-range plans, and make accurate rate projections.

Optimize asset performance, and uncover hidden value. Water infrastructure is aging, and replacing it is expensive. Predictive data analytics using digital tools can help utilities get the most from the assets they have and determine when equipment has become so inefficient as to justify replacement. Technology can also help assess whether it is economical to recover minerals, nutrients and energy from wastewater.

Leverage existing communication and computing platforms. Technology can help utilities cut through the clutter of data from multiple systems and pieces of equipment — in effect turning raw numbers into actionable information. With mobile devices, cloud computing, sensors, and analytics, they can monitor complex and ever-changing processes and make quick and correct decisions based on data, not on “gut feel” or instinct.

Maximize the engagement and efficiency of employees. In the final analysis, utilities’ success depends on people empowered to perform at their best. Digital technologies can help make team members more effective at work, completing tasks faster, interacting more easily with co-workers, and saving needless steps and vehicle travel. When properly trained and educated, employees become the foundation for the digital utility.

Integrate water quality, policy and performance. Water utilities face ever stricter and more complex regulations while also under pressure to keep up their infrastructure and hold costs down. “Continuing advances in the collection, management, and analysis of data provide new tools to realize these sometimes competing objectives,” the paper states. “Regulatory agencies have recognized that the evolution in the water industry’s data capabilities will likely support a more modern, and integrated approach to compliance. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has in fact established an entire Next Generation Compliance program to embrace the new tools for collecting and reporting environmental data.”

Of course, digital technology will not be fully deployed in the new year ahead, but there’s no time like the fresh start of a year to begin thinking about the future. The NACWA paper is available at www.nacwa.org.



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