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Digital technologies are a tool to manage volatility, increase asset life and reduce costs

A key finding of the Australia State of Environment Report 2021 is that in a rapidly changing climate, with unsustainable development and use of resources, the general outlook of our environment is deteriorating – but, immediate action with innovative management and collaboration can turn things around. Our waterways and water resources aren’t an exception.

The Covid-19 pandemic, extreme climate change-related disasters such as floods and droughts in recent years, and currently the global inflation driven by food and energy costs have put extra pressure on water utilities: how to identify and mitigate risks to soldier on through these events without impacting their customers. Sabina Todd, Regional General Manager and Vice President of APAC at Envirosuite shares with Smart Water Magazine her experience through the ups and downs of the Australian water industry, and her views on the role of digital technologies in addressing the challenges that the water industry and utilities are facing.

Can you briefly tell us about your career path and your current role at Envirosuite?

I started my career as an engineer 20 years ago, then moved into sales, account management, product management and more broadly into general management.

Throughout my career, I have been lucky to take on different roles in water and environmental engineering, including contaminated land remediation, environmental impact assessments, hydrogeology, mine depressurisation, wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) design, optimisation and troubleshooting, recycled water treatment plant commissioning and operation, automation and control of water assets.

Through the transition into non-engineering roles, I learnt that everything depends on people, relationships and communication. No matter how technically capable you are, the magic is created when people work together. This is what interests me and underpins my leadership approach.

My current role at Envirosuite is coordinating our Asia Pacific sales and operations team to solve problems related to noise, dust, odour and air quality. Our data intelligence technologies are designed to help our clients in the aviation, water and industrial sectors to minimise the impact on the environment or the community surrounding their operation. Our team comprises 44 passionate professionals, based in 5 countries and providing services to clients across 9 countries in the Asia Pacific.

 Although every water utility in the world has different challenges, the key constant is climate change and the uncertainty it presents

I joined Envirosuite because I wanted to work with an organisation that makes a difference in the impact we humans have on the world. I believe technology is the means to making this happen. We all want the prosperity and standard of living that developed countries have achieved and it is only fair for us to strive for this to become achievable for everyone. However, this achievement cannot come at the expense of the environment or the world. Envirosuite is at the nexus of these problems and this is why I chose to work for this amazing business.

What are the most pressing challenges utilities face to maintain affordability for customers?

Utilities generally create 5-year capital and operating plans to predict how much money they need to keep services running over that period. This is what dictates the cost of water for the public.

Digital technologies enable multiple permutations of a solution to be tested simultaneously to determine the best outcome

Although there is volatility everywhere these days – economic, social and environmental – climate change and the uncertainty it presents is a key challenge. At times, this presents as drought, as seen in Europe this northern summer where river levels were at historic lows. At other times, we see this through flooding, as Queensland and New South Wales in Australia experienced this year. While flooding brings water, it leads to huge variability in water quality, which is a challenge for water treatment systems.

We also see significant challenges from social change. The Covid-19 pandemic undoubtedly put every organisation, individual, industry and society through unprecedented challenges. In Australia, it resulted in a shortage of skilled labour coming into the country. When I worked at Yarra Valley Water we had a team of extremely intelligent, hardworking and funny Irish engineers that contributed to resolving the organisation’s technical challenges. Australia has been bereft of this great global resource throughout the pandemic. I know that this is felt in water utilities as well as many other sectors of the Australian workforce.

Additionally, the Australian water industry is seeing the age of our highly skilled operators increasing, leading to the loss of significant industry knowledge when they retire.

All these challenges are disruptive to water utilities and their plans to maintain affordability while improving water and service quality for customers.

To what extent can digital technologies enhance process performance to reduce energy, chemical and other costs in water systems?

Digital technologies, like Envirosuite’s Optimiser, enable multiple permutations of a solution to be tested simultaneously to determine the best outcome. This is especially relevant when we see increased variability in parameters feeding into a process, for example, water quality, flow or temperature as changing parameters can be taken into account.

Usually, an operator’s first priority is to ensure compliance – making sure treated water from the process is within licence conditions, whether this be Australian Drinking Water Guidelines or Effluent Discharge parameters. With growing pressure on the cost to deliver water and wastewater services, there is also an increasing focus on ensuring effluent is compliant and economically produced. Digital technologies can help balance optimal desired outcomes by taking the variable influent conditions into account and then optimising processing choices, which include reducing energy use or chemical costs.

Digital technologies can help balance the optimal desired outcomes by taking all the variable influent conditions into account

In addition, when systems are designed, they need to take account of an asset’s full operational lifecycle, making sure it functions from start-up to full operational load. This can make it challenging to optimise a plant’s performance, especially during the ramp-up phase when water demands are not as great as the plant nameplate.

How can data collected with digital tools be used to adapt operational settings to specific circumstances like changes in feed water quality and quantity to improve efficiency?

Treatment plants already have online water quality monitoring systems for flow, pH, turbidity as well as a range of other parameters. These can be seen as a trend on a SCADA system. The evolution of this is to understand in real time, what impact changing parameters will have on the process to ensure that we not only continue to meet compliance but also improve efficiency.

At Envirosuite, we have a digital plant simulation (deterministic modelling tool) based on the physics of treatment plant operations (e.g., pipe flow, mixing, head loss etc.) as well as the process chemistry (e.g., stoichiometry, pH, equilibrium, etc). These are generally the principles on which engineers would design a plant. On top of this, we have a machine learning algorithm that looks for trends in the data so that we can start to fill in how the actual plant operates - after all, a theory is an approximation of the general principles intended to explain something - no two plants operate exactly the same way.

By combining these powerful tools, we can adapt operational settings to specific circumstances like changes in feed water quality or quantity to improve efficiency.

At Envirosuite, by combining machine learning and deterministic modelling, we can adapt operational settings to specific circumstances

Could you tell us about a case study where these types of tools are implemented?

We are currently working with a client that operates a 135ML/day desalination plant with pre-treatment consisting of coagulation and flocculation, an ActiDAFF® (flotation-filtration) and cartridge filtration. The core process consists of two-stage, two-pass reverse osmosis including energy recovery, remineralisation and chemical dosing.

The process has been simulated in Envirosuite’s Plant Optimiser software to create a process model of plant operational components. We have then utilised water quality time series which models changing influent water quality through the year to run the digital plant.

The outputs that the process model can identify are:

  1. When equipment is outside of operating guidelines;
  2. Water quality/flow conditions that lead to premature failure or downtime of equipment;
  3. Conditions leading to scale or oxidation of each Reverse Osmosis (RO) stage;
  4. When cleaning is required for each stage of the RO process;
  5. Optimisations of chemical dosing rates by chemical, backwashing intervals for filtration equipment, flow splitting to maximise outputs from RO system.

These outputs ensure treated water compliance at the lowest possible chemical and power consumption. To date, projected savings enabled by Plant Optimiser are a 27% reduction of alum, equivalent to an OPEX saving of between AUD 150,000 - 400,000 per annum.

Can digital technologies help address the risks derived from extreme weather events?

Definitely. We can utilise digital technologies to assess any combination of extreme weather events or operating conditions. Rather than feeding live data into the simulation, we can feed “hypothetical” data into the model. This allows assessment of all possible outcomes for the modelled influent conditions allowing the outcomes of risk to be identified.

In my opinion, this is one of the key advantages of digital tools like plant simulations. We often only think about their benefits from the day-to-day operational perspective. However, because they enable a utility to understand all the potential scenarios that they could potentially face, digital technologies have huge value in planning, strategy development and execution along with risk mitigation.

To date, projected savings by Plant Optimiser are 27% reduction of alum, equivalent to an OPEX saving of AUD 150,000 - 400,000 per annum

Reflecting on when I wrote a Business Contingency Plan at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic for the organisation where I was at the time, I underestimated the potential risks and how I was going to mitigate them. Like many of us, I had never lived through a black swan event like this during my time in management. However, if I had a tool to assess risks – even those that felt wildly unlikely at the time – which I could use to quickly pull together scenarios to see my full risk exposure, I would have been in a much better position to manage the business through COVID-19.

Efficiency improvements go hand in hand with environmental improvements. What can be the role of digital technologies in achieving net zero carbon targets?

If you don’t measure it, you can’t do anything about it. So, measuring your environmental footprint to have an understanding of what your impact is, is necessary for you to know what to do about it.

A few years ago, someone used the phrase “you need to lose the weight, before you buy a new suit” relating to getting to net zero, meaning it will be far more expensive to get to net zero from our current operating position, without first trimming excess “low-hanging” energy consumption. We have seen this in the waste industry too with the hierarchy of waste reduction – avoid and reduce waste first, then reuse, recycle, recover, treat and last dispose of. The same goes for managing water and wastewater. Utilities continue to do a great job in getting the community to use less water, which is the avoid part.

The next part is where digital technologies come in – here we can squeeze more water out of the process by having greater real-time and predictive control of the process. It might just be a small increment but over multiple plants or across entire networks, these savings add up and they relate not just to electricity costs but also chemical consumption or prolonging the life of equipment like membranes or other consumables.

Doing more with less has been a priority for water utilities, especially in the context of the current inflation. What can digital technologies bring to the water industry to help solve this challenge?

There are significant pressures on water utilities in recent years, including Covid-19 and worker scheduling/availability especially during lockdowns, lack of skilled workforce, supply shortages (e.g., chemicals, spare parts), in addition to inflation. I recently read an article on how most companies, not just government or water utilities, feel that they can do a lot more when it comes to adopting digital tools and technologies to increase business efficiency and optimise expenditures.

Digital technologies allow utilities to continue to push the needle further in terms of getting more out of assets and managing risk

On the other hand, there is also a fear that the hurdle costs are very high when it comes to adopting digital technologies. This is from the perspective of getting people in the organisation to understand, adopt and then bring the digital technology into their day-to-day workflow. In addition, people are concerned that they are “locked in” with certain technologies.

However, in recent years, I have seen these barriers to entry come down significantly and I think with increasing inflation pressures, digital technologies will become one of the areas where operating efficiencies can be gained cost-effectively. Overwhelmingly, I do think that our utilities have been and are managed well with the tools and processes they have. Digital technologies allow utilities to continue to push the needle further in terms of getting more out of their assets and managing the risk of the increasing variability we see in the world and our climate.