Utility Management Series: Planning for the Post-Pandemic Future

This series tackles the prevailing dilemmas happening in utility boardrooms across the United States, now covering the question: What is the role of digital technology in promoting operational resiliency?

One of the most remarkable aspects of the world’s initial encounter with COVID-19 is what did not happen to our water systems. Utilities did not buckle under the operational pressures of contagion and social distancing, and our communities did not lose access to critical water supplies. Instead, utilities once again stepped up by reconnecting services to delinquent households, providing new public water sources and monitoring sewers for viral genes.

While COVID-19 presented significant operational challenges, this was more than matched by the indomitable spirit and creativity of our water leaders. We have heard stories of heroism and sacrifice, like the operators at the Carlsbad seawater desalination facility who sheltered in place for days on end to ensure continuous supply to the people of San Diego. This kind of resilience is the byproduct of an admirable instinct within the water profession, the ability to pull together during times of crisis and deliver when it’s needed most.

Another factor that contributed to the sector’s resilience through the crisis was the diffusion of digital technologies. While many utilities were able to combat the pandemic through sheer force of will, those who had made systemic investments in digitizing their processes had an easier time adapting than those who had maintained legacy systems.

Digital solutions such as advanced metering infrastructure, real-time decision support systems, and digital asset management made it possible for utilities to run large parts of their systems remotely. Remote monitoring and data acquisition technologies also enabled utility managers to keep an eye on their assets in real-time, and operators could identify issues ahead of time to reduce workloads for already stretched crews. By contrast, utilities that had not yet invested in digital technologies, and who relied on paper-based systems and workflows, faced greater struggles.

While much remains unknown about the longer term impacts of COVID-19, the pandemic has marked a turning point in the digital transformation of the water sector. Though water innovators have been calling for digitization for the better part of this century, digital solutions have typically been seen as innovations peripheral to the core operations of the utility, or deemed far too risky for mainstream adoption.

However, COVID-19 has flipped the discussion on risk and made us all rethink what’s possible with digital technologies. It is now riskier not to have a digital strategy that can enable greater flexibility and resilience in times of crisis. Furthermore, as the sector moves from survival to recovery mode, the economic impact of COVID will force utilities to look at structural changes in order to decrease costs and address longer-term financial resiliency.

If we fully embrace their potential, digital solutions can offer as-yet unexploited opportunities for financial resilience. Digital tools that optimize capital spending such as pipe replacement or sewer upgrades can advance financial resilience for water utilities, allowing them to optimize levels of service while saving money, reducing risk, and protecting the environment.

Hear more from Al and George on the role of digital technologies in promoting operational resiliency from their presentation at Reach 2020.

Reach 2020 is a free digital event that makes it easier than ever to participate in a conference designed to take your utility to the next level. Enjoy access to on-demand and live content, including presentations by peer utilities, product demos and more. All of the sessions are available now.

Visit xylemreach20.com to learn more about the event and register!