The outbreak of the pandemic has been one of the most challenging events for utilities around the world. The new circumstances required resilience and swift adaptation of processes and teams, whilst continuing to ensure water supply to citizens.
Jaime Barba, CEO of Idrica, shares his vision of the future of the water industry in this interview. He reveals how the company started providing digital solutions to combat the spread of the coronavirus in March 2020, and how Idrica has become a strategic partner for utilities.
Is the pandemic set to leave a mark on the water industry? These are the reflections of the CEO of the company that is leading the way in the digital transformation of water management.
Question: How did Idrica react in the initial stage of the pandemic?
Answer: In February 2020, we began working towards finding solutions to help combat the first wave of coronavirus in Spain. Our initial priority was to build a platform that could send SARS-CoV-2 information to the Spanish government quickly.
When the pandemic hit, the facilities in our laboratory were already prepared to analyze Hepatitis B in wastewater, so we had a team ready to use the microbiological equipment in place and were certified for the job. This enabled us to offer our Covid-19 detection services to several major cities in Spain, such as Madrid, Seville and Valencia, where our headquarters are.
At the beginning of March, we became aware of the full potential of wastewater-based epidemiology, when we started doing massive testing.
All our processes were digitized in our GoAigua platform, which integrates third-party data (demographics, hospital occupancy rate, senior citizens’ homes, reported cases…) in a single management point and provides and integrates solutions to plan and monitor sampling processes, laboratory management software (LIMS) and dashboards.
We started handing over the results to health officials, and the benefits of the solution were acknowledged in a nationwide contract with the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation.
Since then, the GoAigua SARS Analytics solution has been vital in helping the decision-making of public authorities. The real-time data has served as an early warning system for new coronavirus outbreaks. It has contributed to implement selective lockdowns in certain neighborhoods, based on Covid-19 rates, and to make heat maps available to citizens, showing incidence and trends by region.
Q: Is wastewater-based epidemiology set to become a must?
A.- Sewer network surveillance is here to stay. After this experience, the government has learned that sewerage networks provide valuable information for prevention and action. This includes the detection of antibiotics, drugs, microplastics, bactericides, viruses, SARS mutations, fecal biomarkers, bacteria, intestinal parasites, antibiotic resistance genes and industry spills.
In our case, the evolution of the pandemic has driven us to provide track and trace services, where Covid-19 samples are taken from 10 to 15 individuals in a bid to discard large numbers of negative groups faster. This is a very effective way to test old people’s homes and large companies.
Q: Is the pandemic set to leave a mark on the water industry?
A.- The pandemic has accelerated digital transformation of water management globally. Idrica builds on the century-long experience of Global Omnium, one of the most innovative water utilities in Europe, which gives us comprehensive knowledge of utility processes.
Our experience has shown us that companies all over the world share the same frictions when it comes to implementing sensors and digital solutions. We are seeing this in the US, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. Internal teams are often not prepared to lead this process because they don’t have the necessary software specialists on hand. The other alternative, entrusting an external software company with no water cycle know-how, is extremely challenging.
Until now, it is larger utilities that have started their digital transformation. However, the conservation of water requires all these organizations, whatever their size, to begin this journey. Water and energy efficiency, asset maintenance, investment efficiency and resilience are the main pain points to overcome.
The coronavirus crisis has shown us the advantages of telecommuting and controlling infrastructure remotely. Digital twins, for example, build more resilient utilities, enabling them to make smart decisions in operations by using what-if scenarios.
The leaders that can accelerate transformation are already in utilities. They just need to find them.
Q: Will the focus of capital investments be different in a post-pandemic world?
A: Large investments are common in water-cycle infrastructure. However, the focus of these investments is changing to include sensors in water networks, electromechanical elements and in plants.
Breaking down information silos in utilities will also require investments in technological solutions, based on smart data engines that cross-reference all data to build strong relationships between utilities, their employees and customers.
Water monitoring is still not widespread. However, it is the best way to add value at a lower cost, compared to building a new facility, by focusing on the service rather than on new infrastructure.
Q: How are the last few months going to have a long-term impact on utilities?
A: Remote working is here to stay. Nevertheless, this unprecedented time has shown us that we need face-to-face contact, so the future will combine both realities.
In the future, digital solutions will be used by utilities around the world to analyze non-revenue water and optimize energy costs when filling water tanks by using algorithms in real time. These tools will be used to monitor plants, report spills in wastewater plants to treat them properly and make decisions using external data, such as switching reactors depending on weather forecasts. The drinking water networks’ digital twins will tell managers the best time to execute each work order, and smart metering will enable utilities to alert citizens of leaks at home.
The restrictions we have experienced during the pandemic have prioritized the funding of these projects, and leaders inside utilities are ready to drive change.