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When it comes to modernising our water infrastructure, data is power

About the blog

Michael Natschke
Director Business Development, Central & North Europe at Xylem.
  • When it comes to modernising our water infrastructure, data is power

The modernization of water operations is gaining pace as utilities across the world lean into the potential of digital technologies. While the benefits of smart solutions are well understood – from automating processes and workflows to remote monitoring and control of critical assets – it’s not just about having the right technology; it’s about mining the data generated to unlock insights that sustainably enhance utility operations.

Digitally-enabled utilities have access to growing volumes of operational and performance data, but distilling that data into useful information, and knowing how to apply it, can be a barrier to success. A growing number of utilities are breaking down this barrier by combining digital solutions and expertise like hydroinformatics to make sense of their data. By having the right tools and resources in place, utilities have the power to turn insights into action and deliver transformative outcomes for the communities they serve.

Breaking down the barriers with data integration

Traditionally, utility business models have tended to reinforce siloed ways of working. This is largely down to how the utility has evolved over time – particularly in response to situational factors like the geographic dispersal of assets and personnel, as well as changeable environmental factors like extreme weather events. Too many systems, provided by multiple service providers mean that the solutions, and those that manage them, often work disconnected from each other.

The beauty of data and analytics, however, is that they are not constrained by physical boundaries. Digital solutions have the power to create synergies between data sets and utility functions, breaking down the barriers to connect systems together. Smart equipment, like SCADA systems and other third party data sources connected to a controlled open analytics platform, puts a holistic value on the data generated by a utility’s entire system, helping them gain greater network visibility.

As well as operational efficiencies, harnessing data can also help utilities address challenges like asset redundancy or over-dimensioning

Working with a trusted partner to cleanse and structure this data appropriately, utilities can extract the insights needed to bridge the gap between data and decision-making. Not only does this holistic approach deliver unrealised benefits for the utility, but it also opens up possibilities for further digital development by fostering innovation and interdepartmental collaboration.

Harnessing data to turn insight into action

In Europe, utilities at various stages of data maturity have been riding the digital transformation wave with great success, with the differentiating factor being their capacity to filter and interpret the information available to them. Underpinned by collaborative partnerships, these utilities are embracing a new era of water management – one that relies on digital solutions and data analytics to drive operational efficiencies, reduce risk and build resilience.

Take the City of Trier, for example, located in southwest Germany. The City’s main wastewater treatment plant, operated by Stadtwerke Trier, was a large consumer of energy – drawing hundreds and thousands of kilowatts (kWh) from the public grid just to maintain operations. By investing in energy-efficient technology, the utility was able to significantly reduce its energy consumption. Inspired by this progress, they wanted to implement an innovative control solution that would increase efficiencies and allow them to close the energy cycle within the plant.

Working with Xylem, Stadtwerke Trier deployed a Wastewater Network Optimization (WWNO) solution based on artificial neural networks which are used to create data-driven models for the degradation of carbon and nitrogen compounds. The system receives all the parameters and data required for this in real-time from the plant’s existing SCADA system, and the resulting digital twin simulates hundreds of scenarios within seconds so that the required aeration intensity for the biological degradation of the compounds can be identified.

Predictive solutions that use ML and advanced analytics empower utilities to plan for tomorrow while freeing up much-needed finance

Leveraging the advanced WWNO solution, a forecasting model was created to predict both the energy consumption and production at the plant. When comparing the optimised results with the utility’s historical data, the utility was able to identify an important parameter for success; the specific energy required to eliminate one kilogram of load. This is not usually calculated or controlled, though it can ultimately cause unnecessary plant fluctuations and impact overall operational efficiencies.

Since the implementation of the solution, Stadtwerke Trier has been able to eliminate avoidable fluctuations and reduce energy consumption related to aeration processes by up to 20%, representing a saving of 200,000 kWh per year – enough to power 50 private households.

From reactive to proactive system management

Outside of driving operational efficiencies, harnessing the right data can also help utilities address challenges like asset redundancy or over-dimensioning. Utilities with limited resources are often confronted with a great deal of uncertainty, particularly in the face of climate change and changeable weather patterns. For utilities early on in the digital journey, they’ll often implement a security margin – installing three pumps instead of one – in a bid to cover the risk of system failure.

However, digital solutions capable of producing predictive outcomes can allow those utilities to move from a reactive to a proactive approach when it comes to failure management. When operating under a reactive model, utilities lack the flexibility needed to tackle system issues quickly and efficiently, which puts a huge premium on getting the decision-making right. Predictive solutions that use machine learning and advanced analytics empower utilities to plan for tomorrow while freeing up much-needed finance to reinvest in other areas of their operation.

Such data-driven risk models are already being deployed globally, particularly in the US where, amidst the climate spiral, utilities are managing 2.2 million miles of underground pipes with finite resources. For example, the City of Raleigh Public Utilities Department maintains a drinking water distribution system that dates back to 1887, and they needed to prioritise capital works using analysis to determine pipeline risk.

Working with the utility we were able to conduct a probability of failure analysis using historical data in their GIS, and utilise Xylem’s Asset Performance Optimization (APO) solution to identify clusters of high risk individual pipes – optimising their selection for maximum risk reduction. Identifying high risk clusters allowed the City to prioritise pipe replacement projects, reduce mobilisation expenses, minimise disruptions and reduce capital planning time by 75%.

The APO solution also guided the implementation of a pilot program for remote pressure sensors across the utility’s network. Due to the high cost, blanket coverage of the City’s system was infeasible, but the identified high risk clusters allowed the utility to determine where to place the sensors to best target problematic regions.

The downstream impact is transformative. Not only did the solution enable the utility to detect pipe breaks earlier, but it also supported continuous monitoring of the region after repair – moving the utility from reactive to proactive system management.

Fast tracking digital transformation

As utilities across Europe and beyond continue to implement these innovative and highly digitized solutions, more and more data is unlocked, and new ground is broken. Technologies that harness the power of data and analytics are enabling water managers to make smarter capital and operational decisions, transforming water management for not just the benefit of the utility, but the communities they serve.

By sharing best practices and insights from across the industry, utilities can better understand how to maximize these technologies and master the art of the possible – fast-tracking the digital transformation of water.

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