Aug 17, 2020

Digitization in the Time of COVID-19

Looking at structural changes that can lead utilities out of the crisis 

flow prediction
Above is an example of using real-time modeling to predict potential flow to a wastewater treatment plant based on an anticipated wet weather event.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed both strengths and weaknesses in our water systems. Though the situation put significant strain on front-line workers and highlighted the stakes for operational reliability, utilities charged with managing water, wastewater, and storm water went to great lengths to keep systems running uninterrupted in their communities. That is truly something to celebrate. While much is unknown about how the impacts of the coronavirus will evolve, one thing is clear: The implementation of secure digital technologies has proven to be a lifeline for the most resilient utilities. In the year ahead, the impetus for digitalization across the sector will be driven both by a desire for greater operational resilience but also the challenging economics of the post-coronavirus world.

The likely economic fallout from COVID-19 will accelerate much needed structural change, enabling the sector to emerge stronger and more resilient.

The reality is the utilities that had made systemic investments in digitizing their processes and workflows adapted far more easily to the coronavirus than those who had maintained legacy systems. Utilities with modern tools, such as advanced metering infrastructure, real-time decision support systems, and digital asset management, are able to run large parts of their system remotely. By contrast, utilities that have not yet invested in digital systems, and who rely on paper-based systems and workflows, have faced greater struggles. Having fundamentally shifted the perception of these tools from luxury to necessity, COVID-19 could just be the catalyst for enduring and widespread digital transformation in water utilities. 

Life After the Coronavirus

As the sector moves from survival to recovery mode, financial concerns have joined operational resilience at the top of the list of challenges facing our sector. Declining commercial and industrial water consumption, increasing delinquencies and canceled rate increases are just some of the drivers of a monumental financial challenge. In the U.S., the American Water Works Association and the National Association of Clean Water Agencies have estimated that nationwide revenue could drop by 20%. For some utilities, the impact will be even greater. In smaller communities, storm water is often managed as a separate enterprise fund and not afforded the same protections for non-payment, thus exacerbating the potential for financial pressures. 

As revenue declines intensify, and concerns over water affordability and equity escalate, utility leaders will be challenged with delivering essential services affordably, while experiencing the biggest revenue losses they have likely ever seen. This is not a time for seeking out incremental efficiencies. Given the magnitude of this transition, structural change in utility operations is required if we’re to truly build resilience against mounting economic, operational and environmental challenges. 

water and sewer utility
The real-time decision support system Evansville Water and Sewer Utility implemented uses a network of sensors and artificial intelligence to gain visibility into its sewer systems.

Implementation of digital tools should be a critical consideration in any structural change to operations. These tools have the potential to remove pervasive inefficiency in capital programs and to revolutionize the sector in ways that will help to lead water utilities out of this crisis. Today’s capital programs leave savings on the table because the sector’s conventional engineering practices do not fully utilize the value of digital information to optimize system costs; whether it is replacing pipes that have remaining useful life, replacing meters that are still generating perfect reads or building sewer tunnels when the existing network is sub-optimal and not optimized for capacity.

Modern digital decision-support tools unlock the power of data to drive substantially greater efficiency. “Digital twins” driven by real time sensors mirror physical systems and can provide unprecedented foresight and control, especially when coupled with algorithms and control logic that optimize operational choices. Utilities can deploy resilient sensor networks in critical locations to feed analytical models and decision engines, enabling them to focus scarce resources on targeted interventions, not crisis response. 

With real-time and predictive insights on performance, utilities can significantly reduce the costs associated with maintenance and network optimization strategies. That is how Evansville, a city in southwest Indiana, has managed its sewer overflows for less than 5% of the next lowest cost solution, and how the city of South Bend, Indiana, is saving the U.S. $500 million from a capital program to manage its overflows. It is how the sector is going to emerge from this crisis leaner and stronger than ever before. 

Making Systems Smarter, Not Bigger

Decision intelligence solutions are already empowering utilities to deliver more with less and cost effectively meet regulatory requirements. 

Evansville Water and Sewer Utility located on the north bank of the Ohio River serving a population of 163,000, was struggling with capacity problems within its combined sewer system during heavy rainfall. This led to a large volume of untreated sewage being discharged into the receiving tributaries of the Ohio River and Pidgeon Creek each year.  When Evansville entered into a consent decree with the EPA requiring the city to increase capacity of its sewer system to minimize these overflows, the city agreed to take immediate steps to upgrade the treatment capacity of its two wastewater treatment plants.

Working with Xylem, Evansville leveraged leading-edge sensing technology to get a better view into the performance and potential of their existing plants, with the aim of making their sewers smarter, rather than bigger. The innovative, real-time decision support system they implemented uses a network of sensors and artificial intelligence to gain unprecedented visibility into its sewer systems, enabling water managers to trade sewer flows back and forth — like an underground stock trading floor — to redistribute storm and waste water, avoid overflows and reduce discharges. Using a data-driven sense-predict-act methodology, this approach creates a real-time decision support system, integrating critical level, flow, and rain gauge data from sensor networks to effectively “turn the lights on” within the wastewater system. 

hydraulic grade lines
The above graphic shows BLU-X Wastewater Network Optimization monitoring hydraulic grade lines, CSO outfall, and control gates for Evansville Water and Sewer.

The real-time decision support provides operators with treatment capacity and operational forecasts 30 to 60 minutes into the future as well as pumping rate recommendations to eliminate guesswork during significant wet weather events. Armed with this knowledge, Evansville can fine-tune operational responses during wet weather events to achieve early reductions in overflow volumes, ultimately resulting in the utility reducing sewer overflows by more than 100 million gallons every year.

Delivering More With Less

At a time when water challenges are growing exponentially more complex, ignoring the advantages of digitization is now a dangerously risky strategy. By incorporating the use of digital technologies across their systems, utilities can build greater operational and financial resilience and better position themselves to meet the needs of the communities they serve, now and well into the future. This kind of forward thinking and bold investments in the digital transformation of our industry can help our sector rethink solutions to common challenges, and emerge from the COVID-19 crisis and its aftermath stronger than before.  

About the author

Dr. Luis Montestruque is vice president of digital solutions for Xylem. Montestruque can be reached at [email protected]. Dax J. Blake is MSCE, PE, client program architect for Xylem. Blake can be reached at [email protected].