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 four, the authors look at the solutions to consider when addressing the obstacles utilities face to achieve financial and environmental sustainability.

The elements of a new paradigm can be classified in a few areas: technology applied from other industries, data management and infrastructure, methods, business practices/policies, staffing, and alternative use of services. These elements can be applied to all domains of the water cycle and across all stages of activities (assets, measurement, monitoring, trending, modeling and control). Technological evolutions can be applied to the water industry to assist with overall strategy, including: electronics, batteries, communications, data storage, and analytics.

Smart utility networks can leverage data for a more proactive approach to utility management and better customer service.

The capabilities and affordability of electronics continue to evolve. Innovations in edge processing, AI, machine learning, size reductions, and additional memory capacity have put more power in electronics to measure more effectively. The rise of edge processing in devices also simplifies the communication, analytics and effectiveness of data from devices. Instead of transmitting all data and interrupting alarms, data can be transmitted based on regular intervals and prioritized with alarm conditions. 

Stronger, longer-lasting batteries have also provided the ability to place sensors and communication devices in more locations, providing a better return on investment of those assets as their useful lifespan is extended.  

Increased infrastructure and bandwidth have opened more possibilities in the utilization of communications. With additional options and two-way communications, utilities can now look to use multiple methods to suit the applications. Additionally, the two communications can provide future assurance of asset life and usability by providing firmware updates, configuration and alarm settings, as well as data interval changes over the air. As improvements are made and problems identified, the ability to adjust these aspects over the air is hypercritical to the financial sustainability of the utility. 

The availability and affordability of data storage and management have provided greater capacity, accessibility, and reliability of data access. These factors help with long-term trending and modeling as rarely a trend or planning activity can be baselined without significant periods of data. 

The recent explosion of analytics companies and educated people on the subjects, has created new methods to aggregate, trend, model and consume data that empower utilities with actionable insights and better tools for planning. 

The application of these new tools must be considered to make jobs easier, more impactful, and adaptive to change, so that they can address the social and economic challenges. To achieve these outcomes, many factors need to be considered including, the selection of the right tool for the job, the applicable stage of activity, data integration, asset management, policies/business practices, staffing, funding, and utilization of services.

All too often not selecting the best tool for the job will undermine the ease of operation and the financial impact. When selecting a tool, consider the purpose, needed outcomes, ease of use, adaptability and lifecycle costs. For example, measuring a piece of lumber with a micrometer to cut with an ax is not the best use of the tool. Likewise, the method of transport for human organ transplant would be much different than the method of transport for fertilizer. These strategies need to be applied particularly to the measurement and communications selection with respect to intervals, alarms, asset life, precision, and type of equipment.   

Utilizing stages of progression to achieve a smart utility network and provide true utility intelligence is critical to success (see figure 2). The first stage is assets, these represent the majority of the financial investment for the utility. Typically measurement devices are applied to the asset to monitor the performance and life of the asset, as well as troubleshooting and maintenance purposes. These measurements are often monitored remotely to increase the labor effectiveness after the data is communicated to a centralized or cloud-based system. From there, operations and maintenance personnel can gain actionable insights across the water cycle, and the raw data can be used by finance and billing to access the parameters. Trending can be applied from the data to perform historical analysis, which is useful in planning and maintenance cycles. If the application warrants scenario planning for growth, water source changes, maintenance operations, or emergency management modeling (digital twins) may be useful to the utility. Some operations may warrant controls and automation to improve efficiency, asset life, and response time. Utilization of SCADA, pump controllers, programmable logic controllers (PLC), and loop controllers, as well as device automation, can provide solid assistance to the utility for operations.

Not all applications need all stages, nor do they all have to be applied at one time. There are typically low-risk and high-yield actions in the measurement, monitor, and trending stages that can be used to financially support modeling and control, or provide intelligence that those stages provide a low return on investment for the application. For instance, take the use case of leak detection correction – a simple mass balance and pressure monitoring solution may be all that is needed to locate and quantify the leaks. Once the scope is reduced, more sophisticated monitoring equipment can be focused on smaller areas to be more successful at pinpointing the issues. The mass balance and pressure monitoring serve as a means to track progress and potentially alert a utility to new issues, without chronic high-resolution periodic surveys, models, and control solutions being involved.  

As utilities increase data collection and the addition of data tools evolve, the integration and connectivity of the tools can cripple or enable effectiveness. The labyrinth of systems (GIS, WOM, CMMS, asset management, meter data management, ERP, enterprise platforms, CIS, SCADA, and models), as well as the combination of firewalls and premise versus cloud-based systems, can create paralysis stemming from uncertainty of the system of record, the latency or lack of the data transfer access. Compounded with overlapping analytics in each system can provide conflicting results due to different approaches and data. Simplify the data architecture with the utilization of an enterprise-wide data system to provide data redundancy and streamline interfaces for maintenance and access improves (see figure 10). This will also clarify the system of record and enable the analytics within each system to be focused and useful. 

Water infrastructure assets represent the majority of the balance sheet of a utility and their capital costs are significant in both value of the equipment and the labor to install or replace. A small change in spending can have a significant impact on the overall financial sustainability of a utility. Replacement strategies are often based upon age and issues, however, a more prudent approach may be to review the likelihood and cost of failure. Long-term planning is often extrapolated from a variety of data sources, but yields over-designed or under-designed facilities and distribution, or collection networks. With better data capture, more measurement and trending models can be improved to tighten the planning outcomes to meet the real needs saving millions. 

With the addition of technology and changes in methodology, it’s also important to update policies and business practices to match the new paradigms. For example, the deployment of a remote shut-off meter can offer a substantial return on investment to the utility, but it will not yield the full potential if changes are not made to account for new service options such as reduced flow, or service restoration procedures. 

Utilities should consider the availability of services to fill in for peak workloads to avoid over or understaffing engineering and maintenance needs. Additionally, increasing capital expenses can be procured through service models and such models may be attractive with respect to short-term usage or capital budget constraints. Utilities need to evaluate options to review if they make good economic sense for the challenge at hand.

There are a number of solution elements to consider and no utility can deploy them all at one time. The key is to employ them in a logical manner that is best for a specific utility that will provide financial and environmental sustainability.