Guest Column | February 23, 2016

Smart Networks Are The Answer. What's The Question?

Smart Networks Are The Answer.  What’s The Question?

By Joel Hagan, chief executive at i2O

Water utilities around the globe face the same challenges: increasing population, urbanization, and more frequent extreme weather events.  New supply to meet increasing demand is very expensive.  Changing customer behavior to reduce demand is very difficult.  The question is how to get more from existing infrastructure.

Analysis from the University of Washington suggests that the number of people on the planet will reach 11 billion in 2100. Nearly all of the world’s megacities are already experiencing some level of water scarcity and the population of large urban environments is increasing by 1.5 million people every week. Five billion of us are expected to live in cities by 2030, by which stage global demand for water will be a full 40 percent above the levels that can be accessed reliably today.

The frequency of extreme weather events is also on the rise. The U.S., for instance, has experienced more than 50 billion-dollar-damage weather events over the last five years, including droughts, floods, hurricanes, wildfire, and winter storms. Such events now happen at a rate that is more than double the long-term average and places ever greater strain on finite water resources.

New research from the University of Twente shows that more than half the world’s population live in areas where demand outstrips sustainable supply levels for at least one month a year is a timely reminder that we all need to do what we can to reduce water loss and manage the resources at our disposal more effectively.

Drought is so bad in California that there are websites dedicated to it. The proposed Sites Reservoir in Northern California is projected to cost between $2.3 billion to $3.2 billion, while San Diego has built a new $1 billion desalination plant. Depending on the price of electricity, the cost of creating clean water using desalination is between $0.50 and $3 per cubic meter, five times as much as sourcing water from surface supplies.

Changing customer behavior is very difficult.  Each customer is different and water use is habituated, hard-to-break behavior. Businesses that rely on large volumes of water may not have the opportunity or incentive to reduce or change the timing of that requirement. Usage reductions also mean revenue reductions for the utility, which are not likely to be welcome when there are no increases in tariffs.

Many water networks were built over 100 years ago, so the number of network incidents that water utilities experience is likely to increase in volume and severity over time as that infrastructure ages. It is abundantly clear that new solutions must be found that identify and fix problems quickly or stop them from occurring in the first place, if we are to avoid many more repetitions of the kind of resource restrictions introduced in Canada and Malaysia over recent years.

In short, those networks need to get smarter. Ubiquitous communications, low power devices, and data analytics advances make that possible.  They enable wide deployment of sensing and measurement technologies, more sophisticated network control tools, and data analytics to optimize and automate decision-making.

i2O has worked with more than 100 water utilities in more than 25 countries in the last decade.  Our clients reduce non-revenue water, energy costs, the number of bursts, and site visits.  They extend asset life.  They reliably schedule intermittent supply and optimize pressure manually or automatically to deliver guaranteed levels of customer service.

The move to smart networks is accelerating in the water industry because it allows utilities to avoid the high cost of new supply infrastructure, extend asset life in the network, reduce operating costs and deliver better customer service.  What’s not to like?

Image credit: "'Lucy In Ths Sky With...," Peasap © 2007, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: