'Digital Water' Gains Sway as Utilities Push to Maximize Assets, Efficiencies

Cindy Wallis-Lage, President, Global Water Business, Black & Veatch
Cindy Wallis-Lage, President, Global Water Business, Black & Veatch

Cindy Wallis-Lage, President, Global Water Business, Black & Veatch

Facing the dual challenge of aging infrastructure and the drum beat by taxpayers for them to do more with less, U.S. water utilities are striving for resilience. A combination of population growth, urbanization and climate change strains their systems, and traditional funding streams are limited.

It’s a turning point for the water industry, and utilities are recognizing that their future rests with “digital water” as the means to address critical water management issues across the globe.

Utilities are embracing data and infrastructure in new ways to maximize efficiencies. Water has become a high-tech proposition, with data—the “digital” in digital water and increasingly powerful analytics that give utilities actionable insight to get the most out of their assets, predict problems before they impact operations, and prioritize infrastructure investment.

Beyond merely enabling water managers and governmental entities to build more efficient systems, analytics stands to transform the world of water through digitization that already enjoys a broad footprint in everything from health care and factories to retail and media interests. Over the past decade, distributed metering and sensoring technology across service territories have pushed the Internet of Things deeper into client organizations, creating staggering amounts of data.

  The true value of a digital water program emerges when operators move from archiving and analysis of historical data to forward-looking predictive and prescriptive analytics​  

The true value of a digital water program emerges when operators move from archiving and analysis of historical data to forward-looking predictive and prescriptive analytics. Just as the ubiquity of smart phones and intelligent devices has redefined our understanding of connectivity, the power of data to bolster system effectiveness is changing our understanding of water infrastructure. Algorithms, for instance, can cull through data sets to identify previously undetectable changes in vibrations on a pump or changes in water pressure within a system and schedule preemptive maintenance, helping anticipate leaks or asset failures and inform the roadmap of capital investments. In resource-conscious regions, there also is growing urgency around the use of data to help sustain and secure supply.

Yet despite all of this, there’s an undeniable truth: Identifying components of a digital water program is one thing. Adopting a holistic solution is quite another, resting largely on data-capture software applications that can harness information to improve operations. Analysis that drives decision-making, recognizes and adapts to changing conditions and critically helps match demand with the supply resources at hand is the heart of a digital water program.

Survey: Water industry broadly not yet maximizing use of data

In the water industry, there’s evidence that too many utilities still are on the sidelines, failing to exploit all that data can offer. According to Black & Veatch’s 2018 Strategic Directions: Water Industry Report, just 14 percent of survey respondents are using their supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) device information that’s collected to predict asset failure, as well as to monitor system health and other operational purposes. Just over one-third reported using SCADA for operational purposes only, and less than half said they are using SCADA to monitor both system health and operational purposes.

That’s against the backdrop of expectations that capital costs will continue to rise as infrastructure ages well beyond end-of-life expectations and regulatory uncertainty increases, leaving the industry’s digital evolution linked to conversations regarding sustainability. Skepticism about a proposed federal infrastructure plan adds additional complexity to questions about who will pay for vital repairs and upgrades. Calls to prepare for climate change and build resilience against extreme weather events also are stretching already thin budgets.

Even so, water industry leaders in the United States and overseas are reinventing how technology is used to solve industry challenges—and to make a more compelling case for stakeholders and regulators when it comes to infrastructure funding and upwardly adjusted rates.

Migrating to digital water means understanding manageable risks

To be sure, the amount of data moving across networks is staggering, defies an accurate count and always is growing, meaning the curve for data-hungry applications will continue to rise so long as regulatory compliance, planning of future investments and predicting asset failure rely on it.

That’s not to say the migration toward maximum use of that data doesn’t come with risks. As the Internet of Things proliferates through connected devices and artificial intelligence propels further system automation, the complexity of interactions on utility networks increases as webs of connected devices have opened new entry points for hackers to disable critical infrastructure or release personal information.

Recent cybersecurity cases underscore the threats. In 2018, it was reported that the water treatment plant system of a European utility was compromised by malware aimed at mining cryptocurrency. Ransomware incidents reveal the conundrum for organizations considering the transition to more robust use of data: How can we make our systems smarter but also safer?

But interestingly, according to the Black & Veatch report, physical and cybersecurity threats rank comparatively low among survey respondents’ challenges and even dropped in importance from 2017. How utilities manage and safeguard both customer data and behind-the-fence data transport will be crucial.

Moving to digital water will test the comfort levels of many of that industry’s leaders who’ve long resisted technologies that are disrupting the power and telecommunications sectors. Their concerns are real: Will too much reliance on automation and data override human intuition and control? Can they adequately protect their systems against hacks and privacy intrusions? And even if the benefits of data are clear, how do they convince skeptical stakeholders that the payoffs are worth the investment? After all, projects—now more than ever—must be hard-wired to performance and the bottom line.

It requires an appreciation that data performs because it informs, giving keen insights about asset health. It reports and predicts customer consumption and equipment failure. It forecasts how flood-control systems will fare under load and much, much more. Putting this information to work requires two crucial components: the decision to embrace data and to find experienced partners who can help water and treatment providers manage and act on that data.

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