Article | November 20, 2013

Innovative Thinking In The Water Industry


By Dr. Mark LeChevallier, Director of Innovation & Environmental Stewardship at American Water

According to the World Health Organization, more than 3.4 million people die each year from water, sanitation, and hygiene-related causes. Nearly all of these deaths, 99 percent, occur in developing nations. As the largest publicly traded U.S. water and wastewater utility, American Water dedicated itself to working collaboratively with state, national and international organizations, regulators, public health officials, universities, consultants,  and utilities to develop a leading water-related research program to achieve significant advancements in the science of drinking water and wastewater.

Innovations in water technology are vital to finding solutions to the industry challenges we face around the world today: climate change, aging infrastructure, urbanization, resource shortages, the economic and financial crisis, new emerging substances, the need for sustainable development, demographic changes, etc. And like all companies, American Water is challenged to find innovative ways to operate at the lowest possible cost for the benefit of the company and its customers.

While technological innovations will be required to comply with new treatment regulations, utilize poor quality source water, increase energy efficiency and create zero discharge utilities, the challenge is bringing innovation to the marketplace. According to industry experts, it takes seven years for a new technology to enter the water market and there are many examples of where it took decades.

The complex municipal procurement process, consisting of consultants, contractors, city engineers and elected or appointed officials is another issue that challenges companies to adopt new technologies, as well as no return on capital invested and little incentive to increase operational performance. Helping to resolve these challenges requires collaboration with a formal process and dedicated team.

My colleagues and I are constantly exploring the roles that science, technology and human ingenuity play in innovations in the water/wastewater industry. Innovations are vital to finding solutions to industry challenges: climate change impacts, aging infrastructure, urbanization, resource shortages, new emerging substances, the need for sustainable development, etc.   

The issue is that the water industry can often be cautious when it comes to adopting new technologies. To that end, American Water has taken a proactive approach to leveraging our expertise and large and geographically diverse footprint to become an early-adopter of new technologies. Our unique program, called the Innovation Development Process (IDP), fills a vital need to seek innovative, cost effective, and sustainable solutions for all water utilities. It combines research and development, technical expertise, and infrastructure assets from both within our company and from external business partners to create greater efficiencies in the areas of drinking water, water reuse, desalination, wastewater, and bio-energy.

The IDP provides a conduit for innovators to allow their technologies to be evaluated and to accelerate the adoption and market penetration of products or services that help solve pressing needs within the water industry. The open collaboration model makes it easier to work with companies developing innovative technologies, allowing them to benefit from the resources, experience and expertise and scope of an industry leader.

American Water uses this program to seek out, vet, validate, develop and deploy water industry-related innovations that have potential commercial value. Through the IDP, American Water is bringing new solutions and technologies to the marketplace. Since the program’s inception in 2009, approximately 400 ideas were reviewed and several have proceeded to pilot testing and the preparation of a business case.

The IDP is all about cooperation, between independent innovators and our utility company scientists/engineers, between companies in different industries and different countries.

The first innovation produced through the IDP is a partnership with ENBALA Power Networks, enabling the company’s Smart Grid technology to be tested. By connecting assets at Pennsylvania American Water’s Shire Oaks pumping system to the Smart Grid through ENBALA, that subsidiary offset its high electricity costs by delivering Grid Balance to PJM, the region’s electricity system operator – a win-win for everyone involved.  The program adjusts the utility’s electrical use in a real-time response to the electrical network demand, thus enabling electrical equipment to consume more energy when demand is low and less when it is high. This provides Grid Balance to electricity system operators and results in a cash payment to the water utility. American Water not only piloted and proved this technology, but has been active in encouraging other water systems to benefit from the technology as well.

Another innovation we’ve developed includes a patent for a new nutrient-removal process, created by American Water experts, that provides a more affordable and sustainable way of treating sewage. Called NPXpress, this nutrient removal technology reduces electrical costs by operating at a lower oxygen level and eliminates the need for chemical addition by 80-100 percent.

Due to requirements by local Public Utilities Commissions, American Water’s three million customer meters must be replaced every 10-20 years, requiring $40-$50 million per year of capital outlays. In addition, American Water is upgrading its meter system by using remote meter reading technologies instead of touch pad or manual read meters. The Smart Earth Technologies (SET)-hosted solution is another innovation that creates a standardized communications platform, creating interoperability among meter manufacturers without the need for radical modifications to their products. This allows for a seamless transition of replacement meters as well as inclusion of all legacy meters into the network with minimal impact. The SET platform, which incorporates a Universal Data Translator (UDT), is able to receive many kinds of data from the water distribution network, including pressure, water quality, leak detection and flow, not just meters.

And most recently, American Water became a partner in a two-year award from the Israel- U.S. Binational Industrial Research and Development (BIRD) Foundation along with Stream Control Ltd., an Israeli start-up company, for the development of this advanced pressure management system. The stream control research project will demonstrate the feasibility of installing modifications on existing distribution system pressure controls that could reduce pressure in a system as a function of reduced customer demand. International efforts to reduce leakage have confirmed that reducing excessive pressure not only reduces the volume of leaks through pipes but reduces the frequency of pipe failures. The expected outcome of the project will be a significant reduction of water leakage.

According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, history has often shown the vital nature of freshwater is a powerful incentive for cooperation and dialogue, compelling stakeholders to reconcile even the most divergent views. Water more often unites than divides people and societies. The innovations we’re creating through the IDP and our strategic partnerships will help our company, as well as other water service providers, to ensure that people can continue to count on clean, reliable water for decades to come.

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