Keith Hays was recently in London attending a conference on smart water systems. It showcased how far UK water utilities and leading firms across Europe have come in adopting digital technologies. At the same time, it also became clear how far they still have to go.
Smart water systems: Five things Keith Hays learnt
1) It’s a matter of meters
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UK regulator Ofwat summarised its targets for the sector, including 15% leakage reduction and improved customer service. Metering customer consumption is a fundamental part of that, but 56% (!) of domestic properties go unmetered in the UK. Several metering OEMs were on hand looking for opportunities here, including Arad Group, Axioma, Diehl, Janz, Kamstrup, and Sensus. The pace of deployments is slowed by immature Internet of Things (IoT) solutions, an onerous customer authorization process, and unclear rates of return. To be viable in the UK, metering players must offer low cost, durable (15 year) concentric meters and help utilities navigate their data transmission challenges.
2) Forget forecasting, how about ‘nowcasting’
Both the Consumer Council for Water and ATI Technologies discussed (buzzword alert!) nowcasting. Nowcasting in this context referred to the optimisation of situational awareness, such that utilities know in real time what is happening multidimensionally anywhere on their network (flow, temperature, pressure, pH, turbidity, time of last repair, etc).
While many consumers just assume this is happening, the reality is quite different, as South East Water pointed out. Most UK operators have 1,000 – 2,000 customers in each district metering area (DMA) with a sensor at the water’s entry point into the DMA. But inside the DMA is a huge blind spot, due to the aforementioned lack of meters, or other sensors – which precludes more precise nowcasting. For there to be a step change in network management, distribution network visibility still requires significant investment in both instrumentation, and data analytics. But once this happens, utilities can see major room for improvement, as Portsmouth Water stressed the value of deploying Servelec loggers was being able to identify what they didn’t know was going on. Nowcasting is a phrase that we will start to hear more.
3) Navigating the telecoms quandary
The array of options for data transmission (Sigfox, NBIoT, Lora, etc) from RTUs, data loggers, meters continues to pose a difficult decision for utilities, as cited by several utilities trying to build a metering business case. The trade-offs were laid bare among the technologies in terms of coverage, signal strength, battery requirements, transmission frequency, data detail. But as the need to innovate weighs on network operators, they must hedge their bets with a mix of technologies deployed based on specific, sector-level use cases. Some metering firms (Kamstrup, Sensus) are going all-in trying to help utilities navigate the telecoms quandary, differentiating themselves from hardware-centric suppliers like Janz.
4) Evaluating the risk of inaction
Water utility South East Water framed investment decisions as a balance between the rate of return and the risk of inaction. Unfortunately, the incipient stage of digital water solutions’ deployment often means the business case is not so clear cut. Meanwhile, Yorkshire Water applies the idea of Six Capitals to these decisions to capture longer term, multi-faceted value of projects. In the face of difficult-to-quantify risks associated with customer dissatisfaction, workforce development, and intellectual property based on inputs from pilot projects – six capitals may be a more realistic means of framing the quest for innovation.
5) Brexit or not, the flow must go on
Surprisingly, during the day very little of the discussion addressed Brexit, as industry specialists focus on getting done the task at hand. However, on the side-lines, one EU-based manufacturer did mention an uptick in orders as utilities hurry to source equipment before import tariffs change. Another manufacturer pointed out that metering orders mean a steady flow of deliveries rather that spikes for major projects, creating a viable business case for the UK market if procurement increases in AMP7.