Pumps & Systems asked Al Cho, vice president and general manager at Xylem, to weigh in on the behavioral changes he expects following the global pandemic, and how water utilities can maintain operations in the face of such crises.
P&S: Can you explain how remote monitoring would have helped utilities during the COVID-19 crisis?
Cho: COVID-19 stretched utilities around the world with the same operational pressures we all faced, like contagion and social distancing. But utilities did not buckle under the pressure: their teams rolled up their sleeves and set to work with the job at hand—maintaining compliance and operations with fewer people on-site and continuing to service the public.
However, utilities with modern tools had an easier time of it. Digital solutions such as advanced metering infrastructure, real-time decision support systems, and digital asset management made it possible to run large parts of their systems remotely. Remote monitoring and data acquisition technologies enabled utility managers to keep an eye on their assets in real-time, even when not physically on-site. The ability to view data and assets in real-time also allowed operators to identify issues ahead of time, reducing workloads and call-outs for crews. By contrast, utilities that had not yet invested in digital systems, and who relied on paper-based systems and workflows, faced greater struggles.
P&S: How can remote monitoring help utilities navigate other emergencies, such as natural disasters?
Cho: The good news is that remote monitoring, or indeed any digital tool or advanced technology, helps utilities build resilience by supporting greater operational visibility and system continuity, regardless of the threat. Whether it’s combating a global pandemic, or riding the storm of an unprecedented weather event, digital technologies that support better decision-making are empowering utilities to do more with less.
For example, by implementing a network of sensors supported by artificial intelligence (AI), utilities can gain visibility into their sewer systems and fine-tune operational responses during wet weather events. Water managers can essentially trade sewer flows back and forth—almost like an underground trading floor—to redistribute storm and wastewater, avoid overflows and reduce discharges.
By following this data-driven approach, a real-time decision support system allows water managers to “turn on the lights” within their systems to create greater visibility, continuity and resilience.
P&S: What other tools are available that can help utilities when they can't easily have an employee on-site?
Cho: It boils down to how technologies can free up time for people to focus on those tasks that require judgment. Monitor, control, optimize, automate—these are four keywords that matter. Digital tools can keep an eye on assets, alert operators when things are wrong, enable remote interventions, automatically generate optimal recommendations, and ultimately automate a number of processes that today require manual input. These tools can help utilities operate in a resilient fashion even when there are no employees on-site.
P&S: Tell me about the behavioral change you are predicting—what does this entail?
Cho: COVID-19 has made all of us rethink what’s possible with digital solutions. It’s flipped the discussion about risk. Typically, water management has focused on how to maintain stability in processes and outcomes, which sometimes produces resistance to change, even positive innovations. But COVID has shown us that it’s actually riskier not to have a digital strategy that can enable greater flexibility and resilience in times of crisis.
Moreover, COVID-19’s economic impacts mean that many utilities will have to make major spending cuts. As a result, they will need structural changes in spending to decrease costs and address longer-term financial resiliency—while maintaining levels of service. Digital tools that optimize capital spending such as pipe replacement or sewer upgrades can advance financial resilience for water utilities. It is this new way of thinking that has stimulated a behavioral change in our approach to water management.
P&S: How do you foresee the willingness of utilities to embrace this behavioral change (or changes)?
Cho: There are a number of factors at play here. Given the affordability crisis that has emerged as a result of the pandemic, utilities have no choice but to adapt their processes in order to remain financially resilient. It is now a case of assessing how an acceptable level of service can be delivered, but at a fraction of the cost.
Part of the answer is a deeper and more pervasive application of digital decision intelligence tools, which can revolutionize the sector in ways that will help to lead water utilities out of this crisis. The digital technologies that were once perceived as luxuries will now become a necessary part of prudent leadership strategies in utility management.
P&S: What would the cost and benefits look like for utilities to move forward with these changes?
Cho: By applying data analytics to optimize existing processes, we have seen up to 90 percent reductions in planned expenditure to meet desired levels of service. Generally speaking, these tools can offer a triple digit return on investment. That said, successful adoption requires openness to challenging conventional ways of doing business. The change management aspect of digital transformation is often the biggest issue that teams need to overcome.
P&S: Is there anything else you would like to explain to our readers to help them understand why this technology is so important for the future?
Cho: Initially and understandably, our industry’s response to COVID-19 centered on operational resiliency, but we are now entering a new phase of survival—navigating the financial impact.
Over the coming months and potentially years, the water sector will experience declines in commercial and industrial revenues, while also facing pressure not to raise rates. Cash flow issues will continue to mount due to bad debt, with utilities balancing nonpayment of bills with pressure to maintain connections.
Ignoring the advantages of digitization is now a risky strategy. By adopting digital technologies to optimize their core systems and processes, utilities can build greater operational and financial resilience and better position themselves to meet the needs of their communities.