Janet Glazer, Managing Director of Research & Equity Analyst, Fidelity Investments
Technology disruption is happening rapidly and that is particularly evident within the water sector. The market continues to evolve due to a number of favorable regulatory and long-term macroeconomic changes. The need for greater energy efficiency, weather and environmental factors, urbanization, a growing middle class in emerging markets, aging infrastructure and water scarcity have all contributed to this evolution. Now more than ever, utility companies must embrace new technology or risk obsolescence to disruptive companies with emerging technologies.
Connected devices and artificial intelligence will require utilities to be more agile and forward thinking to solve customer and business needs
Secular factors are driving an imperative and important shift in how go about addressing water needs. And this is amplified by the fact that utilities are faced with being at the crux of water and energy needs with a rapid tectonic shift in how information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) is converging. This also includes utilizing artificial intelligence in applications like diagnosing and improving systems and processes. The water sector is not alone in the adoption of connected and smart devices to help provide greater transparency through real-time and on-demand data, analytics, remote monitoring as well as preventative maintenance. Industries such as industrial manufacturing, aerospace and automotive are all faced with adopting greater software and networked systems to help drive greater value for customers as well as their own business demands. In order to evolve, utilities need to be more agile, open and appreciate that these new technologies will ultimately help drive lower maintenance and operational costs.
"A smart-water network helps manage water demand, reduces non-revenue water and energy consumption, and helps with water quality"
The adoption and deployment of new connected systems will result in different skills sets to manage and adopt emerging technologies. This means utilities will need to work in partnership with equipment and technology providers to a) become educated and have a multi-level understanding of the opportunities; b) create solutions to help with resource management while minimizing capital or operational spend and c) drive a new type of collaboration across many different lines of work.
A case in non-revenue water management at the crux of IT-OT
An example of the use and merging of IT and OT is in addressing so-called “non-revenue water” – in other words, leaks is a key growth area within the global water market, and disruptive digital technologies are enabling companies to help find solutions for customers to reduce water loss. Customers span the spectrum of utilities, industrial and commercial end markets, where “smart infrastructure” is at the crux of helping avoid failures, minimize downtime, and reduce energy and maintenance costs, as well as meet regulatory mandates.
The need here is pressing. Much of the existing water infrastructure in developed markets was installed in the early to mid-20th century and has an estimated lifespan of 75 to 100 years. A related issue is the lack of funding for infrastructure upgrades; utilities are limited to fixing the most pressing problems. As a result of this fix-it-only-if-it-breaks policy, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers we’re seeing roughly 240,000 water-main breaks each year in the United States, and a stunning ~20-30% of water runs to waste during distribution to the end user.
With that said, global momentum has been building for a more proactive approach to water management. In October 2018, with near-unanimous support, the U.S. Senate approved the America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 following similarly strong support in the House of Representatives the previous month. A key part of the Act is the Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense program, which assists in identifying and promoting water efficiency through myriad products and services. Elsewhere, China’s five-year plan has targeted reducing water waste significantly, as the country focuses on water resources and the environment in dealing with pollution and water management.
Water technologies run the gamut from intelligent pumps, smart meters, automation and filtration to smart-water networks. At this higher end of the technology curve, smart-water networks connect equipment such as valves, pumps, meters and infrastructure in such a way that the equipment communicates with a software platform and provides real-time data analytics, remote monitoring and diagnostics. A smart-water network helps manage water demand, reduces non-revenue water and energy consumption, and helps with water quality.
One product that has been making a meaningful impact is Xxylem’s Smartball®, which uses acoustic sensors, accelerometer and gyroscope technology to map a water pipeline. This, in turn, has helped utilities with things like condition assessment and leak detection, which is important because leaks are typically a precursor of larger failure points.
Utilities need to disrupt themselves before they become disrupted
Disruption is happening all around us and I believe we’re still in the infancy of technology adoption in the water market, but it is growing rapidly. Companies that are first movers and employ a business model that generates economic value for customers may be successful. And in turn, utilities that are open and engaged in dialogue with technology and equipment providers should ultimately benefit the most.