In a lively discussion led by Booky Oren, Chairman and CEO Global Water Technologies, five leading water and wastewater utilities serving over 11M people discussed their search for the technology they need to satisfy customer expectations while simultaneously addressing challenges such as climate change, pricing pressure and growing population demands. Presenters included Terri Benson, Managing Director South East Water Australia, Ken Hutchinson, Managing Director, Scottish Water International, Andrew Kricun, Executive Director & Chief Engineer, Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority, Kevin Shafer, Executive Director, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and Benjamin Geston, General Manager, Eau de Paris.

There is no shortage of need for new technology solutions, and while each utility has its own unique challenges, all require technology to help them in a few broad categories.  These categories include customer interaction, dealing with climate change and dealing with data. The utilities participating in the discussion are already aggressively working to address these challenges, however, more collaboration and partnerships with other utilities and vendors are needed. This presents a large opportunity for those utilities willing to think more broadly, more creatively and with long vs. short-term vision.

Customer Interaction

According to South East Water Australia’s customer research, utilities must ensure safe and reliable service at all times, warn and inform customers about issues without disrupting service, improve customer experience, and protect the environment and community. And they must do all of this while ensuring a fair and affordable price. Terri Benson noted that customers will not tolerate a price increase to meet these expectations.

An example of technology needed by South East Water Australia to address customer interaction issues is sewer spill detection. Right now South East Water only learns about issues when a problem occurs. They need technology that places sensors strategically in customer overflow outlets to provide early detection and prevention of sewer spills with timely customer notification. This technology must be reliable, with a long lifespan, and must be low in cost due to the high volume of South East Water customers.

Dealing with the Impacts of Climate Change

As climate change intensifies, the incidence of severe weather and flooding will cause more combined sewer overflows and power outages that pose increased risk to the operation of treatment plants as well as sewage pumping systems. More green infrastructure, improved sewer system storage capacity and rapid treatment to reduce the environmental impact of combined sewer overflows will be needed. Green energy alternatives to reduce reliance on electricity will also be needed to keep treatment plants and sewage pumping systems running during severe weather. Both Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority and Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District are working toward energy neutral goals to protect against these types of issues.

From the technology perspective, since pumping stations are often many miles from treatment centers, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics are needed to better predict and fix pumping station problems, thus eliminating the time and expense of sending work crews out to solve the problems after problems occur. And for as many benefits as green infrastructure provides, Kevin Shafer of Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District points out that most green infrastructure is passive, merely filling up and draining. He wonders how to optimize green infrastructure performance, making it more interactive through technology as well as more cost effective.

Dealing with Data

Utilities understand the importance of data in making informed decisions and are using technology to gather that data. However doing so at scale is creating information overload, data storage and cyber security issues that must be addressed. Scottish Water is looking for new technology to collect new and different types of data as well as store more data over longer periods. For example, miniscule sensors known as “smart dust” detect temperature, light, moisture and pressure – valuable data that was previously difficult to acquire. Scottish Water is also looking for a way to make “digital twins” of new assets in order to optimize maintenance and would like to be able to repeat the process for existing systems.

Bringing large amounts of data together so that it is accessible and understandable is becoming the next big technology need. South East Water Australia says it needs ccomputing power and cloud based connectivity to process and integrate data to create machine to machine responses as well as workforce and business process redesign. And while the need for more sophisticated technology in increasing, so are cyber security threats. As Ken Hutchinson of Scottish Water points out, utilities provide a vital service that produces a critical and ingestible product. That product must be protected.

 Cost – A Key Underlying Issue

Beyond the broader technological needs described above are more unique needs based on local challenges. These challenges are wide ranging, including odor minimization, bio-solid volume reduction, and the need to destroy PCBs that collect over time as a black tar type substance in pipes.  Underlying each and every need is the understanding that investments made in technological solutions must not cause utilities raise rates.

Creative utilities have found ways to address this issue too. Per Andrew Kricum of Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority, when making investments, instead of looking at number of years of payback, utilities should look at whether the annual operational cost savings can offset the annual investment debt. Several utilities described how using the triple bottom line of economic, social and environmental benefits to determine the value of a tech investment helps justify the cost and gets more stakeholders to support it. And finally, taking a long vs. short-term view in investment and financial planning is essential.

Finding Solutions to Challenges

So how should utilities approach finding solutions to address their challenges? Booky Oren stresses the importance of clearly defining the problem and parameters of the needed solution as a first step. The second step is looking to see if a solution has already been developed somewhere else in the world, whether through another utility developing its own solution or an industry provided solution. If the solution does not yet exist and the utility must develop its own solution, partnership with vendors or other utilities that need the same or similar solution is a good third step. By following this process, utilities can create effective solutions that not only solve their own issues; they may solve other utility’s issues in the process. As Booky Oren expressed at the close of the session, We are on a great journey together.”