By Anthony T. Jones
The digital transformation of the water sector may trail other industries, but it will happen nonetheless — bringing with it tremendous benefits and opportunities.
Years ago, I took a workshop on strategic foresight — a fancy term for studying the future. As everyone knows, you can’t predict the future, but you can envision scenarios based on past and current events and trends and where they are likely to lead. From those scenarios, you can imagine a path forward. For the water and wastewater sector, my vision is for a future where water is valued, data drive decisions, analytics inform operations, and energy efficiency is king.
Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chair of the World Economic Forum, identified the next industrial revolution in his 2016 book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Schwab rationalizes that this next transformation is different in scope, scale, and complexity from previous major industrial shifts.
Also labeled Industry 4.0, this revolution melds smart platforms for manufacturing with widespread deployment of miniature microelectromechanical (and nano-) sensors, superior wireless communication networks, expanded automation, “smart” machines that can self-optimize and self-diagnose, as well as data, data, data. Key design elements are interconnection, information transparency, decentralized decisions, and information assistance to operators and management in decision-making.
Where Is The Water And Wastewater Sector In This Evolution?
From my perspective, the sector is behind other industries in uptake of purely digital operations. Autonomous electric cars are in the news and significant resources are flowing into developing driverless cars. Why not design and build autonomous water and wastewater treatment systems that are managed by skilled operators, but where the rote work is carried out by computers and robots?
While digital technologies and their implementation are not new to water and wastewater facilities, their integration into our lives and work is sophisticated and complex, resulting in a transformed world around us. Every stage in the value creation is impacted by the shift toward a digital world. I believe the water and wastewater sectors lag other industrial sectors in adoption of a purely digital operation.
Where Are We Now?
Across the U.S., more than 54,000 organizations are involved in treating water and wastewater. Each water authority has unique challenges in terms of supply, demand, geography, and jurisdictional restrictions on discharge into the natural environment, yet the basic principles of physics, chemistry, and biology still apply. The set of treatment processes and systems are common, and innovation has been incremental. The biggest invention in the last 50 years has been membranes.
Treating water of any kind requires energy. Annually, a total of 30 terawatt-hours of electricity is required to process water and wastewater, representing between 25 to 40 percent of operating costs for operators. The source of the electricity has implications footprint. Optimizing the performance of the equipment leads to energy efficiency and reduction in operating costs, but you need to monitor and collect the data. The portfolio of energy use is shifting toward renewables. The UK water industry has set an ambitious target for net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. Monitoring energy consumption will be required to know that efficiencies have been achieved.
Why not design and build autonomous water and wastewater treatment systems that are managed by skilled operators, but where the rote work is carried out by computers and robots?
A healthy population and a healthy environment require essential infrastructure to support water and wastewater treatment. To ensure a healthy economy, these vital water services are required. Yet water authorities and sanitation districts struggle to keep up with maintenance — much of it deferred. Legacy collection and distribution networks are at the end of their life, requiring capital to retrofit or rebuild. Rethinking how to move water and wastewater in a congested built environment could lead to unique solutions.
Digital Transformation Initiative
The World Economic Forum that hosts the famous Davos confab organized a Digital Transformation Initiative (DTI) a few years back “to serve as the focal point for new opportunities and themes arising from the latest development in the digitalization of business and society.” According to the executive summary, the digital transformation would unlock $100 trillion for business and society over the next decade.
The DTI recognized that “the falling cost of advanced technologies is a defining characteristic of the digital revolution. It is playing a major role in accelerating innovation.” Eight billion devices are connected to the internet; by 2030, the forecast is that number will grow to 1 trillion devices. Water sensor networks will be in that mix.
An accounting firm reported in the DTI that, for the mining and metals industry, digital first movers exhibited improved earnings of 70 to 200 percent (as measured as EBITDA, or Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization) over the digital laggards during the study period. The adopters will survive in competitive markets.
There are parallels with the water and wastewater sector. Interactions with frontline employees are shifting toward using mobile devices to garner the latest information on operations, material lookups, flow rates, maintenance procedures, and other environmental data to support their tasks. Maintenance will be predictive, not reactive, reducing costs, lowering workforce requirements, and identifying when and where work is needed. Information and parts to repair assemblies will be delivered prior to the part failure. Devices that listen to the rotating machines can be trained to alert staff of shifts in performance characteristics that indicate imminent failure.
Outcomes Of Digital Transformation
One of the outcomes of the DTI analysis was the need for next-generation analytics and decision support tools. A framework or architecture is needed to place all the streaming data in context, providing understanding of the processes and systems along with insight to make mission-critical decisions on crucial infrastructure. Data analytics allows interpretation of robust data collected, encrypted, and stored on the cloud. Fundamental algorithms for most treatment processes have been established. Numerical simulation offers results to problems encountered by operators and informs them of options to proceed. The same set of simulation tools can be used to remodel, refurbish, or extend capacity. Manufacturers’ specifications can be compared with field operating equipment. A closer collaboration will yield a better, safer workplace with superior quality in the products and services provided. But data are required for this future.
The Water Research Foundation recognized the need for such a framework for transformation of water utilities by awarding a study in 2020 titled “Definition of a Smart Utility – How to Be a Digital Utility and the Framework for an Intelligent Water System.” The awardee’s press release stated that “The technologies and data platforms available to water utilities create countless benefits across various business processes. Water supply management, water treatment, water distribution, customer engagement, internal customers, wastewater collection, wastewater reclamation, and watershed protection are all components of water and wastewater utilities that can reap the benefits of digital infrastructure and concepts.”
We may know that things are going digital, yet there is resistance to change in our institutions and in one’s own psychology. For the water and wastewater sector, in general, there are low technology adoption rates across agencies. Public health concerns, regulatory drivers, and conservative agency cultures prevent uptake of innovative technologies, newfangled business practices, or novel business revenue models.
The primary driver for large companies to invest in new technologies is new efficiencies. There is opportunity for them to use these technologies to improve existing business processes and optimize assets and resources, thereby reducing their costs and enabling savings for their customers and, hopefully, sustainability.
About The Author
Trained as an oceanographer, Anthony T. Jones, PhD, cofounded Waterhound Futures in 2019 to tap into the data from water and wastewater treatment processes to predict the effluent from discharge pipes. Through a predictive model, insight to optimize plant performance, aid regulatory compliance, and reduce freshwater contamination is provided to subscribers. Dr. Jones holds a doctorate in oceanography from the University of Hawaii and has published in the fields of marine geology, marine biology, and oceanography. Dr. Jones has extensive international experience in the field of desalination. He can be contacted at Tony.firstname.lastname@example.org.