The Utility of the Future Series

In this six-part series, Travis Smith, 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 three, the authors look at some of the challenges utilities face and how a better understanding of these obstacles will help build the utility of the future.

The obstacles utilities face can be daunting. A never-ending combination of social, environmental, regulatory and financial challenges coupled with aging infrastructure, IT architecture, staffing, policies and business practices that are not compatible or dated compared to the issues and available technology. A deeper appreciation of these challenges will help with the foundational methods and approaches to making the utility of the future.

The population of the world continues to grow, shift and urbanize. As the population changes, the world’s water demands put stress on the local supply and forces the need for better sustainability management of the water inclusive of drinking water and wastewater treatment, as well as reuse and storm water management.

As climates begin to change, weather patterns shift physical scarcity and storm water impacts become magnified. Rising sea levels exacerbate salt water intrusion in coastal areas and are compounded by population growth. 

The need for more agricultural food production, coupled with land development strains water resources for available water as three times the public supply is withdrawn for agriculture irrigation[1] and likely to rise, thus continuing to challenge aquifer levels. Additionally, nutrient runoff associated with agriculture challenges source water with algae blooms and oxygen-depleted water bodies that further constrain the food chain sustainability.

With both advances in pharmaceutical medicine and the threats of pandemics, health also plays a key role in water quality. As populations age and medicine advances, more people ingest pharmaceuticals and pass them back into the watershed. These micro constituents present a removal challenge, as well as human health hazards as many people are now receiving micro doses of medicines that could be detrimental to their long-term health. As the risk of pandemics arise the threat of water-borne or transmitted diseases could also significantly impact the treatment needs and costs.

The continued rise of industrialization also challenges the water cycle. More complex materials and processes produce the potential for new contaminants with latent effects – consider the potential impact of PFAS on the treatment and biosolids processes. These new materials and demand for existing materials drive the exploration and extrapolation of mining, which can impact the water cycle as well.

With population growth and industrialization, the need for energy continues to rise. Thermoelectric power withdraws the most water in the U.S., with almost four times the public supply[2]. As energy demands increase water usage and thermal pollution (both water and air) will continue to be sustainability challenges. Additionally, the cost of energy plays a key role in the cost of water treatment and transport. 

The amount of infrastructure and the associated value of the infrastructure within water utilities is enormous. Since the infrastructure is mostly out of sight to the public and political decision-makers, the updates and replacements to the infrastructure are often deferred or minimalized, pushing the boundaries of useful lifespan. This is intensifying failures, causing additional collateral physical damage, expenses, and water quality risks. Items such as lead service lines and increasing water main bursts are just two examples of the stress and costs.

Social and environmental challenges are not the end of the problems. Regulatory changes can also redirect investments. Items such as PFAS, lead, and copper service lines can redirect budgets to achieve compliance as the solutions are often capital intensive.

Additionally, the increasing desire for citizen access to data and smart city needs are creating data and workflow challenges. Utilities are being forced to increase their data transparency, the customer service models that depend on more data, integration, security and access.  

Financial pressures further constrain utilities. Rate pressures, rising costs and budget cuts present a vicious cycle of deferments of maintenance and upgrades increasing the frequency and consequences of failures, lowering public perception, and creating a difficult situation to create financial sustainability.

Internal challenges such as policies, business practices, staffing, and IT present additional barriers. Often policies and business practices are not adjusted with the adoption of technology, thus choking the return on investment. As the complexity of the solutions rise, the skillsets of the staff need to include more data science, analytics, and IT skills. The IT architecture is too often siloed and not permitting data to interface beyond the native system, creating duplicity and confusion within the analytics. With these silos comes a labyrinth of firewalls, application programming interface (API), file transfer protocol (ftp) exchanges, user access, and cloud services that require additional maintenance.   

Unfortunately, additional problems with data can arise. Often the volume of the data is too large or too small to address an issue. Alarms can create overloads of noise rending them not actionable. Problems with the veracity of data and overuse or false positives of alarms can render their value negligible. This can be daunting, but with the right approach, the vicious cycle can be broken and turned into a virtuous and sustainable cycle.

Figure 9: Social and Environmental Forces on a Water Utility

[1] USGS, Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 2015, Circular 1441, 2018, US Department of the Interior, page 8

[2] USGS, Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 2015, Circular 1441, 2018, US Department of the Interior, page 8