A Water Connected Future

A convergence of technologies will see greater focus on the energy-water nexus.
Published: Wed 13 Jan 2016

Water and energy are inextricably linked. Energy is required to manage and supply water, with the energy bill being one of the water utility’s biggest costs, while energy utilities are major users of water for generation.

Both sectors also face similar challenges in needing to modernize and upgrade ageing infrastructure and focus on the more sustainable use of resources. Water utilities are following the technology lead of their energy counterparts and looking to more optimal management of their networks and delivery of resources, while also enhancing the customer relationship. As the Internet of Things takes shape with a convergence of technologies on common platforms the interconnections will only become stronger.

“We are seeing two major trends in the industry,” Joe Ball, Director of Marketing, Water Solutions, North America at Itron, outlined to Engerati in an exclusive interview. “One is a focus on the meter to cash process, and the other is a move to smart water networks.”

The smart water meter business case

Mr. Ball explains that the smart water network business case is based on maximizing the revenue for the water supplied. One obvious saving is in the move from manual to automated meter reading.

Another is the remote disconnect/reconnect capability in smart meters. “Especially when applied in multi-dwelling situations it saves utilities time and truck rolls while landlords know they are not going to be stuck with high bills, and we have seen the potential for significant savings given the number of truck rolls for disconnection our customers perform each year.”

But the primary benefit arises through the reduction of losses in the distribution network and at customer premises.

“We see a strong focus on detecting leaks which smart metering can help with,” says Mr. Ball, pointing out that for many utilities in the US and elsewhere leaks typically amount to 15% and upwards of the water dispatched. “By gathering more granular data, leaks can be identified quickly and alerts sent to the customer and the leaks then repaired. Likewise distribution leaks can be identified and repaired before they become visible as mains breaks.”

At the same time the smart meter data can also be used to improve the customer relationship with the utility better able to respond to billing queries and provide understanding on their consumption.

“Leaks generally end up coming back to the utility as a complaint but with the ability to identify them earlier, customer satisfaction goes up and the losses can be minimized.”

Smart water grid

With smart metering and analytics forming the basis for a smart network, this backbone opens the way for other ‘smart’ applications. Mr. Ball points to a couple that he says Itron is working with partners to develop – water quality sensing and pressure sensing.

“We are working with partners to enable their sensors to utilize our smart water network to transmit the data from the sensors back to the analytics application for analysis, identification, prioritization and ultimately taking action.”

As such applications grow, so too does the potential for correlating the different data sources and gaining improved visibility across the network, with multiple benefits. For example improved visibility on usage could allow the utility to optimize its pumping schedule with potential energy savings if done off-peak.

A shared communication network

With water utilities generally lagging their electric counterparts with smart metering they face the prospect of deploying an essentially duplicate communications infrastructure. An especially notable project that Itron was involved with, and believed to be the first private, public partnership of its kind, has seen the City of Bismarck, North Dakota’s water department piggyback its water distribution modernization on the Montana-Dakota Utilities Company (MDU) network.

Under the agreement between the two companies, which could serve as a model for others, MDU collects the water meter readings from the approximately 21,000 meters in Bismarck and provides these to the City for its customer billing.

Water in the smart city context

So far, while similar opportunities have emerged elsewhere, no firm agreements have closed, Mr. Ball comments.

Indeed, in general, such an arrangement, which requires overcoming potential regulatory hurdles, especially when involving a private utility, and “aligning of respective objectives”, is most likely to have potential in a smart city context.

Mr. Ball says that over the last year or so the increase in the number of smart city events has led to a breaking down of siloes between the different parties. “We’ve seen utilities and city management teams coming together to better understand the technologies and opportunities.”

Further impetus in this direction is expected to come from the Envision America initiative, which was launched by the White House in September, modelled on Envision Charlotte, the smart city project in Charlotte, NC.

Intelligence at the edge

Like the electric and gas divisions of Itron, a strong focus in the water sector is development around the Itron Riva™ platform with the opportunity to get intelligence to the edge of the network.

“This is our focus going forward,” says Mr. Ball. “For example with pressure sensing on the network our technology could have the ability to communicate with a pressure reducing valve to adjust the pressure in real-time.”

Then there is always the potential to use Itron’s standards-based network for other applications such as traffic management, street lighting, security, parking management, etc. “Municipalities can deploy their networks for AMI initially then they can expand the use of their networks with apps for other city departments that provide services for all citizens.”