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How tech is helping water utilities answer the big four sustainability challenges

  • How tech is helping water utilities answer the big four sustainability challenges

The UN’s High-Level Climate Champions for Climate Action aims to fully decarbonise water and wastewater services in 20 countries by 2030. Not only is achieving net zero an imperative for water utility companies to ensure the future of this planet and this essential natural resource, but it’s now a key expectation of customers and regulators alike. Alongside the sustainability challenge, water companies are also facing uncertainty over demand and population growth, environmental instability and water scarcity.

With these competing priorities, water suppliers face multifaceted issues which can make hitting net zero seem an insurmountable challenge. Yet according to research, in comparison to other industries, utility executives lead the way in sustainability action within their organisations. However, half also say that increased process complexity is standing in the way of meeting their sustainability targets. As a result, many are turning to technology to help to solve this complicated matrix. Water is an industry keen to innovate; players within this space are more advanced than those in other industries in adopting technology. In fact, almost half use big data and the cloud to power operations versus approximately a third in other industries.

Here we explore how these technologies are powering success for water companies across the four key sustainable challenges.

Challenge 1: Decarbonisation and reducing emissions

Under pressure to meet ambitious sustainability targets, many water companies have started to make progress by recognising the need to be held accountable and to reduce harmful gases. For instance, Water UK has found that the UK’s water industry uses 2% of national energy consumption but produces one-third of total national Greenhouse Gases from its operations. Fundamentally, this is a key barrier to meeting net zero.

Reducing emissions is therefore a market priority, and with OFWAT introducing mandatory reporting of emissions, it has become essential to digitalise systems to monitor usage effectively.

Increasingly, water companies are turning to remote monitoring and real-time data analysis to aid energy optimisation and reduce consumption. Through enhanced analytics, powered by IoT sensors and the cloud, water companies can collect and read vast amounts of data in real-time. Not only does this support overall measurement of consumption but it helps to forecast usage, which means that utilities can better identify where to optimise their output and reduce their footprint.

However, it is not enough to reduce energy use; the energy itself needs to come from renewable sources. Through the cloud and big data, utility companies can analyse their service and the supply chain to make more accurate, informed choices on where non-renewables are present, and seek ways to convert to greener alternatives.

Challenge 2: Non-revenue water and leakage

It is estimated that non-revenue water (NRW) has reached over 126 billion cubic meters per year - a staggering loss in a world where water scarcity is a very real issue. As a result, water utilities must look to promote a range of water-saving initiatives and continuously monitor for and control leaks across the network.

While NRW is a constant thorn in the side of utility companies, it is another area where IoT sensors, the cloud and advanced analytics are paving the way for a more sustainable future.

Smart water solutions, incorporating real-time network monitoring, can identify water loss incidents. While predictive asset insight makes it possible to identify operational inefficiencies, instantly detect repair issues, and even predict maintenance needs before problems arise.

In this sense, digital transformation can act as an early warning system, reducing non-revenue water and providing invaluable data on the network's health, feeding into broader analysis that can support sustainable goals. What’s more, water companies no longer need to tolerate the often expensive, slow hardware associated with legacy processes. Instead, IoT sensors and the cloud can support a cost-efficient business model while powering scalable insights from rich data sets.

Challenge 3: Supply chain management

The supply chain is at the heart of driving a sustainable business model for water companies and reaching that crucial net zero target. It’s here that the cloud and real-time analytics is playing a key role in delivering critical end-to-end visibility to allow utility leaders to make smarter, more informed purchasing and planning choices.

But delivering supply chain sustainability is not a responsibility that water companies need to shoulder alone. Success is driven through collaboration, not just with suppliers but partners too – regardless of their type or size. As such, many have opted into flexible and scalable networks which gather end-to-end data to support in-depth supply chain insight and measurement. This approach means it is possible to work with suppliers to assess and reduce the collective carbon footprint, innovate, and adopt circular business models, reduce waste, and drive social responsibility across the supply chain.

Challenge 4: Measurement and onwards strategy

Water utility companies have goals in both Capital Carbon, emissions associated with the creation of an asset, and Operational Carbon, emissions during the in-use operation of a building, which are continuously monitored and reported. However, customers, regulators, investors, and employees want transparency in sustainability and for clear targets to be set, monitored, and actioned.

Measurement is the foundation of net zero success, so monitoring progress and gaining actionable insights from dependable sustainability data is crucial. As such, water companies should seek to draw insights from a central data source that can improve Environmental and Social Governance (ESG) transparency and sustainable business performance, while also promoting trust in robust and auditable ESG reporting.

Moreover, by drawing insights from a central data source, water companies can take a proactive, rather than reactive approach, to science-based targets. With real-time analysis and the cloud, utilities can integrate and acquire sustainability and ESG data, and build models that offer resilience against global volatility and uncertainty, and support current and future strategies across business divisions, from finance, HR, real estate to operations.

According to the UK government, between 2025 and 2050 Britain will need more than 3.4 billion additional litres of water per day to meet future demand for public water supply. Emerging technology such as analytics, AI, IoT, machine learning and smart metering have enormous potential to reduce utilities’ water footprint and reach net-zero. To achieve this, water utilities need to engage technology partners with specific industry expertise and the digital solutions to match. This is not a challenge that water utilities companies can answer in isolation but requires collaboration and innovation, where technology can be harnessed to support an encompassing sustainability strategy.

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