Staying Afloat Through Technology and Innovation

Ben Grumbles, President, U.S. Water Alliance and Keith Zukowski, Communications Associate, U.S. Water Alliance
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Ben Grumbles, President, U.S. Water Alliance and Keith Zukowski, Communications Associate, U.S. Water Alliance

With budgets being squeezed nationally across nearly all sec- tors, one word has begun to reign su- preme in the minds of managers, CEO’s, and CIO’s alike: efficiency. How can your organization improve scale and effective- ness, while simultaneously scaling back costs? With proper research and invest- ment- from technology to personnel to methodology- organizational efficiencies, asset management and bottom lines can be improved. It is imperative that adequate time, energy, and money are allocated to researching possible avenues of efficiency. If done properly, the return on investment will certainly validate the efforts.

To do so, requires a willingness to step outside of what is comfortable and what may have served your company well for years, if not decades. In the water sector, there’s a tendency to turn a blind eye to possible efficiency improvements for the sake of continuing with a technology or process that has served a community well for quite some time. At what point will the nation collectively be embarrassed by the estimated 1.7 trillion gallons lost each year simply due to leaks and breaks? While bottom lines may remain above water, potential revenues are ignored and pen- nies, dimes and dollars literally leak away through antiquated or failing infrastruc- ture that is not suitably monitored and maintained with up-to-date technology. While the essence of water has remained unchanged for eternity, the complications that arise in treating, transporting, and distributing it increase each year, whether due to legislation, declining infrastructure and machinery, or any of the myriad mat- ters that give all managers headaches.

“Utility managers and leaders owe it to themselves, their companies, and their constituencies to seek and implement the most beneficial solutions offered”

Thankfully, as barriers arise, technol- ogy often provides us with the spring to not only hurdle them, but to improve performance overall. It is well known within the water industry that a water main breaks somewhere in America every two minutes. Our water infrastructure was given a D grade by The American Society of Civil Engineers. To fix all leaks and maintain a state of good re- pair, the U.S. Conference of Mayors estimates that as much as $4.8 trillion will need to be invested into our water infrastructure over the next 20 years. Of course, it is up to the utility managers in the meantime to limit the negative effects of insufficient infrastructure. Many remarkable utility managers have stared down challenges and sought out efficiencies in the face of changing landscapes. Ameri- can Water, America’s largest investor-owned water and wastewater utility, is one of the industry’s earliest adopters of new technologies, and works to develop and implement progressive technologies that come from within American Water and from external businesses. The company’s central laboratory, for which they won the United States Water Prize, supports research through sophisticated testing and analysis, and has been awarded 79 research grants totaling over $32 million. The lab is guided by a unique program called the “In- ternal Development Process”, which they use to seek “innovative, cost effective, and sustainable solutions that can benefit all water utilities.” American Water has implemented Smart Grid technol- ogy, which adjusts the utility’s electrical use in a real-time response to the electrical network demand, thus enabling electrical equip- ment to consume more energy when demand is low and less when it is high. It provides efficiency for their systems as well as those of the electrical system operators- and results in a cash payment to the water utility. American Water also uses Automated Meter Reading (AMR) and Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI). These tools reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles and provide bet- ter service to customers and reduce system-wide water waste. AMI provides daily meter readings to the home office without dispatch- ing any vehicles at all. It also listens to leaks in pipe networks, thus reducing water loss.

Another example is Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD), VA, which was confronted with a need to reduce nutrient loads deposited into the Chesapeake Bay. Many solutions were expensive and came with various shortcomings. HRSD sought out an innovative third-party technology that would recover nutrients from wastewater and transform them into a premium, environmentally-safe fertilizer. The technology would recover nutrients from liquid waste and maximize treatment process ca- pacity while reducing operational costs. By selling the fertilizer, HRSD was able to offset the capital expenditure of installing the facility.

Another shining example is the East Bay Municipal Utilities District (EMBUD) in Oakland, CA, which in 2012 became the first wastewater treatment plant in North America to be a net energy producer, producing more energy onsite than needed to run the facility. More than a decade ago, EMBUD began ac- cepting organic wastes from local food processors, food growers and livestock producers to use the excess capacity in its existing anaerobic digesters. Since then, they have more than doubled biogas production, and, along with the revenue generated from tipping fees, they managed to fund a renewable energy system.

The list goes on of utilities that have encountered stumbling blocks only to invest in technology and innovation that turned those stumbling blocks into stepping stools to greater efficiency and production. With each year, science and technology make remarkable strides. Utility managers and leaders owe it to them- selves, their companies, and their constituencies to seek and im- plement the most beneficial solutions offered. Sufficient time, thought, and asset management can lead to clearer water, bluer skies, and greener pastures for us all.

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