OPINION: FIVE TRAITS OF THE WATER UTILITY OF THE FUTURE

Five traits of the utility of the future

I think the utility of the future will…

…be a digital utility, particularly for asset management
Sophisticated platforms are being developed for specific issues. Solutions are being trialled. Although we talk a lot about digital water, we are still at an early stage in the water industry. I think digital water will be particularly important for asset management: asset management is the KEY challenge for the water industry.

…become a water and energy utility
Why not imagine that water utilities sell energy surplus or even renewable energy to the communities? In particular if we look at the trends in energy, which rather go towards decentralised systems, we could imagine that the water utility sells energy too, through these decentralised systems. This could become more significant in the future and the emergence of blockchain would allow peer-to-peer trading for energy.

…become a water resource recovery facility
Wastewater could become a greater source of new resources to be recovered. Technologies and services exist to do this and ensure a sustainable financial stream for the water utility. Excellent European innovation projects are also currently being carried out in this respect.

…put the consumers at the heart of its operations
This is something that the utilities claim to have done but what has been missing is the creation of a different, and more personalised relationship with customers. Digital tools will increasingly enable this, as these tools will allow for a better understanding of customers’ needs. In relation to personalised hydration, could we also imagine that the utility gets into more personalised services for tap water too?

…use FinTech to redefine payment for water and wastewater services
Strangely today, FinTech in the water industry is discussed in the context of improving access to water and wastewater in developing countries, notably in the context of the emergence of pay as you go systems. In the future, could we think about innovative financial solutions to pay for water that would reduce, for instance, non-revenue water? The challenge would be how to apply these to the different contexts you experience. Nonetheless, this aspect should be further explored.

Making water innovations attractive

Looking ahead, innovative technologies and services will inevitably transform the business model. The new generations of start-ups have understood that the innovations that are placed on the market need to embrace a shorter return on investment time and should be affordable. They should also be ensuring that the water industry would save on capital and operational expenditure.

There are early stage start-ups in Europe which will bring in disruptive technologies. There are also some innovations at the R&D level, including through the European R&D and innovations projects, which will be true disruptive technologies and concepts. However, one area we need to improve in Europe is how to spin off companies from research and innovation projects.

I should also mention a last topic, which is investment. The whole value chain to sustain the utility of the future must include investment in innovations that will then be used by utilities. Investment has been low because the water industry, among other end users, has not seen water innovations as attractive. This is changing because the start-ups have understood that the business model is as equally important as the technology or service, to attract investment and attract the market’s interest. There are also new ways of financing water innovations, which go beyond the traditional venture capital model. But this is for another article.

SINGAPORE TO TENDER FOR SMART WATER METER CONTRACTOR

Becoming a smart water utility of the future

As part of a wider plan to become a smart utility of the future, Singapore water agency PUB is gearing up to roll out smart meters over a two-year period, between 2021-2023.

PUB said it will call a tender in the first quarter of this year to appoint a contractor for the installation.

This follows global engineering firm Jacobs being appointed as the Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) specialist for the project in August 2019.

Jacobs will evaluate and provide advice on meter devices and technologies, with the appointed contractor tasked with the installation.

Earlier this month Tertius Rust, the head of digital/utilities for Jacobs, who is working on the Singapore project, said the “maturity of this IoT technology” is a “catalyst for major digital transformation and the foundation for more complex data benefit realisation initiatives”.

Smart water meter trial

In total, 300,000 smart meters will be installed over a two-year period across residential, commercial and industrial premises

PUB is hoping the smart water meter roll out will help to reduce water consumption, based on evidence from meter pilot trials conducted at Punggol and Yuhua in 2016 and 2018, respectively.

According to PUB, around 10 per cent of the 800 households experienced leaks, which mostly occurred at the water cisterns.

On average, households in the trial achieved average water savings of 5 per cent due to “early leak detection and the subsequent adoption of water-saving habits”.

When questioned, residents who participated in the trials had found the data on daily usage trend to be the most useful feature.

For the main smart water meter roll out from 2021, customers’ daily water usage will be provided via an interactive web portal.

Residents and business owners can receive high usage notifications and alerts of potential leaks promptly. With these alerts, they can fix the leaks quickly to reduce water loss and save money.

Ensuring a smooth and seamless process

“The smart water meter is a prime example of how we can leverage technology to significantly improve our productivity as we do away with manual meter reads,” said Ridzuan Ismail, director of water supply (network), PUB.

“By applying smart water technologies, we are transforming our operations and planning, enabling access to near real-time monitoring and data across the water network.”

Data from the smart water meters will provide PUB with time-specific information on the amount of water customers use, including which part of the day experiences higher demand. The water utility said this will help it to better plan for changes that need to be made to the water system.

Beyond the hardware, PUB is also reviewing the business services that supports water billing to enhance overall customer experience by providing a smooth and seamless process from metering to billing.

The smart water meter market is expected to grow to $5.12 billion by 2026, driven by the need for increased water conservation and reduction of non-revenue water.

FOUR TOP WATER INNOVATIONS FROM CES 2020

Decentralised water solutions grab attention at CES

From a Sony electric concept car, a “rollable” OLED television from LG or Avatar-inspired, sideways moving Mercedes car, multiple technology launches headlined the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2020.

The annual event in Las Vegas is a technology mecca for techies, enthusiasts as well as anyone wanting to find out about the next big technology breakthroughs.

CES 2020 was the first edition in its 50+ year history where sustainability products, including water, were included in the major event awards.

This is a solid reflection that environmental issues, including water, are slowly but surely making their way into the public consciousness.

We take a look at four of the up and coming water technologies presented at the show.

Smart water for a smart home

Attention on the rise of the smart home was boosted at the end of December after Amazon, Google and Apple announced they could collaborate on a new smart-home standard.

As a result, there were a higher number of smart gadgets and devices at this year’s CES, offering to connect almost every part of the house.

One such announcement was a smart water detector, called Flo, by the home water security company, Moen. This is a follow up to the ‘Smart Water Shutoff’ product, which detects leaks on household pipes, alert users and even shut off the supply.

The new Flo is a standalone sensor that can be placed anywhere in the house to detect water events “outside of the pipes”. It detects if there is an increase in moisture from the air – whether a flooded basement or malfunctioning household appliance – and alerts users through an app.

When paired with the shutoff product, it can shut off the water supply if it detects additional moisture in the air.

Moen said that 73 per cent of surveyed households have no idea how much water they use on a daily basis.

Closing the [Hydra]loop on decentralised reuse

Dutch innovation decentralised water reuse solution, Hydraloop, scooped three awards while at CES: Best of Innovation in Sustainability, Best Start-Up and Best of the Best at CES 2020 in Las Vegas.

With a modern, sleek design, the Hydraloop takes outgoing wastewater and uses six widely-accepted treatment methods to sterilize the water, which can then be reused around the house, from garden irrigation to washing machines and toilets.

Designed to help users recycle 85 per cent of their daily household water use, the Hydraloop is headquartered at the water technology centre the Water Campus in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands.

Chris Velazco, the senior mobile editor from Engadget, said: “The Hydraloop isn’t just a charming bit of modern home decor — it’s also a highly sophisticated water purification system.”

Associate Features Editor Chris Ip added: “While not cheap at $4,000, the unit has the advantage of being a “set and forget” device. Sustainable practices will really take hold in people’s daily lives when they’re frictionless, and that’s what Hydraloop aims for.”

Forget solar panels, it’s all about the Hydropanel

The atmospheric water generation (AWG) market has been touted as a solid method to quite literally, generate water from thin air.

At this year’s CES, two AWG solutions stood out.

The first was the Rexi Source hydropanel from a firm called Zero Mass Water. Imagine a solar panel, but instead of capturing the sunlight to generate energy, instead, this harnesses water from the air and filters it ready for drinking.

The company launched a commercial version two years ago and has since been producing clean water for businesses and schools across the world.

CES saw the launch of the residential version, now available to the general public to buy.

So how does it work? Moisture from the air is absorbed into a hygroscopic material to be filtered. Minerals such as calcium and magnesium are added before the clean water is pumped directly to the house.

Forbes reported that “maintenance is minimal” – an air filter needs replacing once a year, and the mineral cartridge every five years, at the cost of US$100.

Solar-powered and equipped with sensors, as well as a cellular connection, owners can check the status of Rexi anytime through an app.

Only producing approx. one gallon per day, and less in arid climates, the Rexi isn’t designed to completely replace all freshwater supply but instead offers a way to “take control of the water you drink while making it risk-free”.

GENNY from the decentralised block

The second of the AWG solutions to feature in this list is the Solar GENNY, presented by the Israeli technology company, Watergen.

With the ability to run off-grid, solar panels power the device to produce water for remote sites, rural villages, parks and green residential premises.

The Solar GENNY can generate up to 13 litres per day (3.5 gallons). After the air is drawn in, an internal filter cleans the air by removing dust and dirt. After being cleaned, the air is directed through a heat exchange and cooling process, before being condensed into water. A final filtration step then removes impurities, before minerals are added to provide drinking-quality water.

At CES the technology was named the Consumer Technology Association’s Energy Efficiency Product of the Year in the 2020 Smart Home Mark of Excellence Awards.

FIVE BARRIERS PREVENTING A DIGITAL WATER UTILITY

An inconsistent uptake in digital

Digital solutions can help water utilities to meet climate change challenges, new regulations and ageing networks instead of “savage hikes in the price of water”.

Furthermore, modern solutions could help to save 11.6 per cent of a water utility’s annual spend. And using data at every opportunity can help water utilities improve operations at a lower cost and maximise overall benefit.

Yet, despite the often publicised benefits of digital solutions, there remains an inconsistent uptake in digital solutions from water utilities.

That’s according to a new whitepaper ‘Accelerating the digital water utility’ released by Global Water Intelligence (GWI), together with pump company, Grundfos.

Five barriers halting a digital water utility

Multiple water utilities from around the world were consulted to produce the whitepaper.

It concluded that there remain five main obstacles to creating a “digital utility”, including:

1. It is challenging to escape digital poverty. The utilities consulted were “wealthy in digital terms”, the whitepaper said. They had sound basic systems and staff used to delivering change. Each new project built on this base. As they accumulated data and expertise, everything became easier. The reverse is also true. Those utilities without a robust digital endowment are likely to find projects more difficult and less rewarding.

2. The key does not fit the lock. Leaders complained of the mismatch between what vendors want to sell and what they want to buy. Each utility has different priorities and different systems to build on. Vendors, on the other hand, prefer to sell the same thing over and over, according to the whitepaper. That is how they make a profit. There is a compromise to be had. It only happens if the two sides devote time to talk.

2. Assessment is difficult. The leaders reported that it was difficult to make a case for their spending on digital systems. The costs and the benefits may be spread unevenly across CAPEX (capital costs) and OPEX (operational costs) and different departments. Even when a project is up and running, it is difficult to know the full costs and benefits.

3. Procurement. Most utilities have to buy through public tenders, which does not work well for digital projects for three reasons. First, because no two vendors offer a directly comparable package with a clear price tag. Secondly, because compatibility with existing systems is often more important than price. Thirdly, because the end point of the journey is often not visible from the starting point.

A total of 71 per cent of the leaders we spoke to preferred to travel with long-term partners. Evolving the procurement model to meet this need would help.

5. Internal issues. Utility leaders had to rank 13 problems that they might face in implementing digital projects. The top concerns included: Concerns about cybersecurity; staff resistance; utilities are institutionally resistant to change and lack of coordination between projects, among others.

There is no standard ‘digital journey’

A total of 32 water utilities participated in the survey, selected on the grounds of the maturity of their digital engagement.

This included the Hong Kong Water Supplies department from Asia, Yarra Valley Water from Australasia, Anglian Water and VCS Denmark from EMEA and DC Water and Tucson Water from North America.

When asked for their explanation as to why there has been such inconsistency in digital investment practices, respondents highlighted that each utility will operate under their own unique procurement strategy, developed independently to suit their circumstance and experience. One conclusion of the whitepaper was that “there is no standard digital journey”.

A variety of utility leaders were quoted when addressing the reasons why water utilities can struggle to become digital utilities.

Joke Cuperus, CEO, PWN, The Netherlands, said: “Because we’re obliged to use European tendering for our procurement processes, it’s very difficult to enhance communications with digital solutions vendors.”

Erin Mahoney, CEO of York Region, added: “Not having a clear framework of what ‘Digital’ means is a significant barrier to adoption. Digital Transformation is all about: People, Processes, then Technology. We need to move from rhetoric to reality.”

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong Water Supplies Department reported that: “The reasons for the mismatch between the positive perception of digital solutions’ potential impact and the slow pace of their adoption may include several factors. New digital solutions can require huge capital investment, both from the initial investment and recurrent maintenance costs.

“It can also be difficult to build a strong business case for deployment of innovative digital solutions for lack of sufficient successful reference applications, making it hard to quantify the potential merits and savings of new or innovative digital solutions.”

Comparing water utilities to Amazon

Nigel Watson, CIO, Northumbrian Water, UK, said one of the key motivations to digitise is not just about savings, but also delivering excellent customer service.

Northumbrian is aiming to have a ‘Net Promoter Score’ (an index measuring customer’s willingness to recommend products and services to others) of 70 per cent.

Watson said: “We won’t achieve that unless we match our service to the experience, our customers are getting from other leading suppliers. Obviously, they can’t compare us with another water company, but they will compare us to the likes of Amazon. That level of convenience through digital is what our customers expect.”

WASTEWATER TREATMENT BOOSTED IN ISTANBUL WITH MBR UPGRADE

Advanced biological treatment methods

The completion of the Ataköy wastewater treatment plant in Istanbul, Turkey, is helping the historical king of thermal desalination Fisia Italimpianti broaden its global project portfolio.

Worth €83.9 million, the project is being modernised and expanded to process 600,000 m3/day, serving three million people eventually.

Located in the western part of Istanbul, on the European side, the plant will use advanced biological methods to treat the wastewater before discharging it into the sea.

Italian engineering firm Fisia Italimpianti is revamping the existing part of the plant, in service since 2010, to treat 360,000 m3/day from 1.8 million equivalent residents.

This follows completion in late 2018 the construction of a new section for 30,000 cubic metres per day on three treatment lines with Membrane Bioreactor (MBR). Treated water will be used for street cleaning and irrigation.

Going underground in Yenikapi

Ataköy is being delivered on an engineering, procurement & construction (EPC) contract for the Istanbul water and sewerage administration, known as ISKI, which manages water and sewerage in the city.

According to its 2018 report, the organisation manages 86 wastewater treatment plants, with a capacity of 5.8 million cubic metres per day.

In the Istanbul district of Yenikapi, Fisia Italimpianti is building another plant for ISKI that will treat 450,000 cubic metres of wastewater per day, a volume equal to the sewage produced by two million residents.

Wastewater collected from the Yenikapi area, after treatment, will be discharged to the Marmara Sea.

A high load activated sludge process, the treatment plant is located in a central area near to Istanbul and to limit the environmental impact, the project is being constructed underground.

Historically a leader in desalination, with thermal plants making up the bulk of its project tally, Italian water engineering company Fisia is part of the wider Salini Impregilo Group.

The company’s projects are located in countries like Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.