The Digital Age of Water: Lessons From Other Sectors

The digital transformation of the water sector was ongoing before the COVID-19 pandemic. Digital technologies have now emerged as essential tools in solving water quantity and quality challenges. They’re also helping to vastly improve monitoring of water supplies (surface and groundwater) and how infrastructure assets are managed, as well as communication with customers and consumers (2019 Year Analog Water Solutions Died). The adoption of digital water technologies is now accelerating in response to increasing water scarcity and poor-quality issues, and the COVID-19 pandemic is only accelerating this (Doubling Down on Digital Water).

Just as digital technologies have transformed other aspects of society, water is undergoing the same transformation. The groundwork for the digital transformation of water was captured in the World Economic Forum Harnessing the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Water report. Several recent reports highlight the ongoing digital transformation of water this year.

In particular, the International Water Association and Xylem publication Digital Water: Industry leaders Chart the Digital Transformation, as well as the report Accelerating the Digital Water Utility (PDF), focused on the water and wastewater utility sector and geographically focused digital water technology solutions. Another reference is Digital Water Technology Solutions for the Colorado River Basin, which Water Foundry published along with the Environmental Law Institute.

Lessons from other sectors provide valuable insights into the digital transformation journey. While water is unique, it is worth understanding how digital technologies gain acceptance and scale. The pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation of water, and we are now in the digital age of water.

Leapfrogging to Digital

In general, water infrastructure around the world is either failing or non-existent.

According to the 2017 American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Report Card for Infrastructure, the water infrastructure for the United States rates a D on a scale of A-F. In Africa, only 58 percent of the population has access to clean drinking water, and an estimated annual investment of $15 billion would be required to reach the remaining 42 percent. The time and money required to upkeep aging systems that were designed for another era seem insurmountable.

But what if we didn’t have to think about updating or creating infrastructure in the same way we did when it was new?

Leapfrogging, the concept of jumping over one or more generations of the previous infrastructure to arrive at a new infrastructure technology suited for today’s world, is happening all around the globe and across many sectors. Perhaps the best-known example is the move from no or extremely poor telecommunications in Africa, India, Asia, and South America, to a highly utilized network of cell phones and mobile devices. As one person put it, “India, China, and Africa are all building out their communications infrastructure on the back of the cell phone and not the copper wire.”

The rapid arrival of mobile phones has led to leapfrogging in finance, education, energy, and even healthcare sectors. Kenya is an example of this multi-faceted leapfrogging, where two innovative phone-based programs, M-PESA that provides non-bank centered monetary transactions and M-TIBA that connects people to healthcare and health insurance, have helped the country see a reduction in poverty, an increase in financial transactions, and will hopefully support a healthier citizenry.

Many developing countries are forgoing fossil fuels, which come with high environmental and social costs, and in some cases, the centralized distribution grid required by a singular large power source. From localized solar gardens and individual solar installations at affordable prices to wind power, these technologies simultaneously leapfrog over outdated fuel sources and infrastructure while also decoupling from the traditional environmental impact caused by energy generation.

The result is equitable access to energy, decreased pollution-related deaths, increased job growth, and a positive impact on the ecosystems usually affected by fossil fuel extraction. These increased benefits to society leak from one sector to another, helping to both spur innovation and create a cleaner world. In fact, some of the most effective work being done with infrastructure technology is reliant on the power of entities, even those that may traditionally be at odds, working together to create new, powerful solutions.

As Joshua Sperling of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory explains – the coupling involves application “across interfaces of rural to urban, district-city-national-to global scale, to social- ecological-infrastructural systems, or even across public-private-research sectors – that together can effectively enable new synergies between industries, technologies, infrastructure or policy trajectories that maximize economic prosperity (or productivity) while enhancing environmental, resource, and service sustainability (or resilience), respectively.” These solution-oriented partnerships bring far greater resources to the research and implementation of meaningful actions than any party working in isolation.

The Africa Renewable Energy Initiative is one such coupling worth examining.

With a goal to achieve at least 10 GW of new and additional renewable energy generation capacity by 2020 and mobilize the African potential to generate at least 300 GW by 2030, it is a robust initiative with necessarily aggressive goals.

Digital Transformation of the Energy Sector

As the water sector undergoes its digital make-over, it is important to remember that the water sector is not alone in its transformation.

In fact, there is much to be learned from the experiences of other sectors. An overview of the digital transformation of the energy sector provides valuable insight in the adoption of digital technologies and also as an enabling technology for the adoption of localized and microgrid systems.

Digital technologies are revolutionizing the way energy and fuel are explored, collected, generated, stored, distributed, and consumed across the energy sector. Perhaps the most transformative impact of digitalization on the industry, however, is the implications of digital technology on the renewable energy sector. Scaling renewable energy in the coming decades is necessary not only to help growing economies meet their energy requirements but also as a means to combat ongoing climate change. Renewable energy resources such as wind and solar, however, are highly variable and require highly accurate and timely forecasting to ensure grid stability. Near real-time data is required for forecasting, and advanced, automated grid control is necessary for switching between energy sources during periods of low production.

Digital technologies are becoming the enabling force allowing these requirements to become a reality.

Due to its intermittent and distributed nature, managing renewable energy resources requires expanding visibility, intelligence, and control (e.g., deploying connected, intelligent and secure devices; automation equipment; sensors and smart meters).

With digital technologies providing higher resolution data sets, better algorithms, and new modeling tools, actionable intelligence can be provided to grid managers, mitigating the risks of intermittent energy production. IoT technologies, AI, and machine learning can sense changing grid conditions (e.g., changes in demand or production) and quickly take appropriate actions (e.g., redirecting more produced energy to storage, shifting to a different, more available energy source).

While large-scale grids benefit in numerous ways, microgrids are using digital tools and IoT technologies to gain their share of the energy sector. As energy disruptors increase, such as natural disasters, increased demand on large-scale grids, and even IoT itself, so does the propensity for power outages and blackouts. Microgrids allow individuals, buildings, and even small communities to provide their own energy or function as a contributing source to a larger grid.

Digital sensors and intelligent connections allow this to occur safely and reliably by automatically shutting off or reversing the flow of energy from a microgrid to the larger grid. Additionally, microgrids themselves can be a combination of renewable energy and traditional sources, such as solar power and diesel fuel, and switch from one to the other as needed through digital tools. In Puerto Rico, where more than a third of the population was without power for months after Hurricane Maria in 2017, and the entire island is rattled by earthquakes, microgrids, and small localized energy sources provide an important stabilizing factor into the larger grid.

In addition to overall grid management, digital technologies are also revolutionizing the management and operation of renewable energy plants (e.g., wind and solar farms, hydropower production facilities).

For example, at wind farms, kilowatt-hours are lost every year due to unplanned downtime, operational inefficiencies, and inaccurate forecasting. Schedule-based maintenance is also largely inefficient and cuts years off the lifetime of turbines. IoT and other digital technologies, however, are providing the data, analytics tools, and AI systems to make turbines smarter and more productive. Combined sensor data and AI analytics make turbines more reliable and generate more energy. Data analytics programs can help operators react in real-time to changing wind velocity and direction as well as grid demand, allowing for improved management of the intermittency of wind energy.

Sensors also play additional roles by detecting anomalies in turbine operation that may go unnoticed in regular inspections and alerting technicians to immediate issues, allowing maintenance to be performed on a case-by-case basis.

Once identified, many malfunctions can even be addressed remotely, saving technicians from being sent to hazardous or remote locations. Digital twin technologies are providing another method for proactive maintenance by combining historical, physical, and real-time data to predict asset failure. Already deployed globally, digital wind farms are resulting in up to 10 percent reductions in maintenance costs and 3 percent increases in revenue.

Digital technologies are transforming solar and hydropower production in much the same way as they are wind power. In solar and hydro production, digital twins simulate how a plant should operate, helping managers fine-tune operations for optimal performance and flagging potential maintenance needs before asset failure occurs, avoiding unplanned downtime, and bypassing regular maintenance visits. Digital technologies are improving turbine/ panel performance, reducing losses, and optimizing asset management across the renewable energy sector. With digitalization comes the potential to enable true “smart” grids using battery storage and the “smart” release of renewable energy, all while remaining responsive to end-user needs and synchronizing production with weather forecasts and flow control.

As digitalization continues to transform the renewable energy sector and smart grids become more of a reality, the potential of green energy is being unlocked to meet the growing demand for electricity due to population growth, circumnavigate the constraints of centralized power supplies to provide electricity to rural and underdeveloped communities and combat the rising threat of climate change. In this way, the experience of the renewable energy sector provides an example of how digital technologies not only provide for improved operations, efficiencies, and savings within an industry but have the potential to benefit both society at large and the greater environment by providing resilience, security, and sustainability.

This article was originally published in Smart Water & Waste World.

Will Sarni

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of water strategy consultancy, Water Foundry. He is also the CEO of the Colorado River Basin Fund, the first placed-based water-focused investment fund in the United States. Prior to Water Foundry, Sarni was a managing director at Deloitte Consulting where he established and led the water strategy practice. He was the founder and CEO of DOMANI, a sustainability strategy firm, prior to Deloitte. Sarni is the author of five books. Sarni is a co-founder of WetDATA and a host of the podcast, The Stream with Will and Tom. He is a board member of Flowater, Silver Bullet, Project WET and the Rocky Mountain Rowing Club. He was the Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board for the WAITRO Global Water Innovation Summit 2020 and was on the Scientific Program Committee for Stockholm World Water Week from 2013 through 2019. His advisory work includes working with the 2020 X-PRIZE (Infinity Water Prize), as a Bold Visioneer for the 2016 X-PRIZE Safe Drinking Water Team and a Technical Advisor for the Climate Bonds Initiative: Nature- Based Solutions for Climate and Water Resilience. He is also on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Water Security.

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