The digital revolution is well underway across business, industry, and culture, but water utilities have some catching up to do. Utilities are not necessarily known for trailblazing new ideas and technologies, but that’s not a criticism; far from it, in fact. Water providers often prefer the tried and true for a very sound reason — the lives of their customers depend on their success. However, the jury is no longer out on the advantages of going digital, and the time to flip the switch is now.
For all the horrible effects of COVID-19, it has helped to nudge U.S. utilities further toward smart water operations, underscoring the need for remote data collection and operations as well as proactive and informed decision-making. Meanwhile, utilities that had already fully embraced the smart water concept prior to the pandemic realized how beneficial digital capabilities can be in a crisis.
One such example is Global Omnium. The Spanish utility is so far ahead of the digital adoption curve that it spun off its Big Data platform into an independent technology company, GoAigua. For the following Q&A, I spoke with Pablo Calabuig, CEO of GoAigua in the U.S., to get his thoughts on domestic utility trends, smart water implementation amid COVID-19, and the buzz around our cover story topic, digital twins.
What emerging trends are you seeing within the U.S. water sector?
The U.S. water sector is already undergoing a profound digital transformation, particularly accelerated by the current situation. I believe remote work, streamlined operations, and data-driven decisions will be at the top of every water utility executive agenda in the upcoming years as billions of dollars in revenues are subtracted from their top line as a consequence of this crisis.
Additionally, the U.S. water sector is suffering a generational change as never seen before — one-third of the workforce is expected to retire in the upcoming years. Many people view this as a challenge since experienced professionals with profound know-how will be leaving their organizations. However, as new talent joins the sector, I believe there is a great opportunity to combine the best of the two generations and speed up the change that has already started.
How can smart water solutions help address global crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic?
During the pandemic, we leveraged our digital advantage and data-centric platform to develop a sewer surveillance system and quantify the concentration of SARS-CoV-2 in sewer water at a neighborhood and even building level. Our laboratories in Spain have great experience in the detection of viruses in sewer systems, and with the digital integration we provided to 20+ cities, we can use a granular surveillance system to cover a population above 5 million to anticipate the spread of the virus. By combining real-time information with health, demographic, and socioeconomic data, health officials are making granular decisions at a city level to prevent spikes.
What are the biggest challenges and opportunities for implementing digital twin technology at water utilities?
When digital twins for water systems are properly conceived, they are the result of a long-term digital transformation journey that will deliver many benefits, even before thinking about having a hydraulic model in place. Having a proper GIS, a complete asset inventory and CIS [customer information system], a data-centric model for all of the utility’s assets, and investing in a well-calibrated hydraulic model (complemented with AMI data) are necessary steps to achieve the end state. Thus, one of the great challenges of implementing a digital twin is realizing that it is not a means to an end. It is a journey that will create many unexpected benefits along the way.
What are GoAigua’s main goals in the U.S. water sector?
Having completed the digital transformation at Global Omnium, from which GoAigua was created, and then expanding to help hundreds of global water utilities go through a similar journey, we’re now guiding U.S. water utilities down the same path. Our phased approach, supported by tested solutions and analytics, is designed to maximize investment while minimizing the risk of disruption to operations. In sum, our goal in the U.S. is to transfer our know-how, experience, and solutions to accelerate the change that has already begun in the sector.