There are grounds for growing optimism around the opportunities for smart, data-driven technologies in the water sector, given the views of Amir Cahn, Director of Research and Business Development with SWAN, the Smart Water Networks Forum.
He puts the proportion of water utilities who are moving forward with such technologies at only 5-10%, but he points also to the growing number of strong case studies of experiences with smart approaches. ‘I think there are a lot of proven technologies that can be used now and are being used now,’ he says, referring for example to smart metering technologies, and advanced leakage control approaches such as pressure management and event recognition. ‘Today, water utilities are becoming much more aware of new technologies and sensors to develop smart water networks,’ he adds.
The speed of adoption remains limited due to a number of barriers to progress. ‘I think it is a very fragmented market, so there is not a lot of cooperation between different stakeholders, like the technology providers, utilities and investors,’ says Cahn. Another factor is the extent to which the municipal water sector is financially risk-averse, he adds. Above all though is the extent to which smart approaches differ to what has been done previously. ‘I think it is cultural change and acceptance, in a relatively conservative industry, that is the greatest barrier,’ he continues.
Cahn emphasises this latter point by noting that the potential of data-driven approaches implies a change as far as utility staffing is concerned. ‘I would see utilities having new positions for smart systems, such as a data engineer, focusing for example on mining new information to improve efficiency and focus capital improvements,’ he says, adding: ‘I think that these positions will become accepted in the new workforce that has grown up with such technology and will expect to be using it as a daily part of their jobs.’
Optimism comes from the fact that, having identified these barriers, they can be tackled. ‘I think the best way is to address them head-on,’ says Cahn.
This means there is a need and opportunity to build and share case studies, to bring together the whole range of stakeholders to share thinking, and to get input from others, for example. Given this, these are exactly the areas in which SWAN itself is working to help stimulate the take-up of smart water technologies, explains Cahn. Activities have included the creation of an interactive tool to help utilities understand how different aspects of smart water technology fit together. ‘The tool arose because of the idea of a smart water architecture wasn’t really understood,’ he says. ‘I think the tool is really valuable to utilities at different levels of advancement.’ Recently SWAN published a white paper examining the role that regulators have to play in progressing smart approaches. And crucially the SWAN network itself works as a means of bringing together the different stakeholders, not least by running an annual conference, with the next one, entitled ‘Accelerating Smart Water’, taking place in London on 5-6 April.
So there is the promise of progress, although not necessarily towards a single idea of what represents a smart water utility. ‘The term smart water network is kind of misguided,’ says Cahn. ‘I don’t think a utility should be expected to become completely smart in all aspects of their network. It is about finding what a specific utility’s challenges are. Smart water technologies allow them to optimise certain aspects, and you can expect utilities to take advantage of these technologies using the power of data.’