The Utility of the Future Series

In this six-part series, Joseph Dryer and Zachary Barkjohn look at the social, environmental, and economic pressures facing utilities. They will share their vision of the future using current technology, integration, and methods to break from a vicious financial cycle to become a sustainable utility.

In part six, the authors look at the full journey of creating a smart utility network to achieve true utility intelligence.

Meter reading systems, online sensors, internet access and consumer portals are making utility data more numerous and more accessible. Throughout the organization, extending to the customers, this accessibility leads to increased accountability and transparency, which leads to smoother operations and higher customer confidence.

Some utilities are well on their way to achieving this vision of utility intelligence; others, however, are just starting the process and are still determining where to begin. In either case, posing the following questions can help a utility align their utility intelligence roadmap to their needs.

Consider the functional goals of your utility. For most utilities, this includes delivering the highest quality water to their customers while keeping their costs well controlled. Do the plans to adopt digital technologies support these goals? Without a comprehensive plan to scale the systems and integrate the data, the value propositions will remain nebulous and hard to obtain.

What data granularity is required to meet the functional goals? Often people will gravitate to the highest data rates possible, but that can have significant consequences on the battery life of communications hardware, as well as bandwidth, storage costs, and analytics usability (see figure 13). Tracking the chlorine residual from an analyzer out in the distribution system doesn’t warrant the same sample and transmit rates as monitoring for pressure transients. Accuracy also can impair the value proposition: poor measurement can adversely impact analytics and lead to false conclusions.

Consider the return on investment. The ROI is often difficult to quantify, but does that mean the utility shouldn’t try? Absolutely not. At a minimum, utilities should consider the opportunity cost of choosing one technology over another. This means taking into account the value of the data and the asset life. Asset life can be affected by usage, technology shifts, battery life, and other factors. Replacing assets short of their intended useful life can be expensive not just in hardware, but labor as well. To take it a step further, utilities could incorporate the impact of risk mitigation, reduction in failures, and improved customer satisfaction.

The interdependence of water systems necessitates a holistic approach. Are there strategic initiatives in asset management, water quality, customer service, or sustainability? Identifying weaknesses is one of the main objectives in strategic thinking, however, over-emphasizing a focus area can lead to detrimental effects in others. For example, minimizing water loss is a noble pursuit, but in some areas, background leakage can act as de facto flushing. In this example, water loss should be considered in conjunction with the water quality goals.

Remember to keep the desired outcomes in perspective. What is required to convert the data into actionable information? Staff resources can enable even more value when they are empowered with the training and have the right tools in regards to the hardware, data, and analytics. Advancing the skill sets or adding new resources may be valuable considerations to achieve a substantial return on investment. 

Similarly, financial models such as Software as a Service or Network as a Service, might be advantageous. These can complement in-house resources, helping spread the costs of new technology towards operational expenditures, thus reducing capital outlay. Moreover, it can be advantageous to push ownership and risk to the technology provider.

No matter where a utility is on their journey, they can always plan and take the next step towards Utility Intelligence today. Utilities will always encounter challenges, but with the right vision, the future can be resilient and sustainable.