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America’s Water Infrastructure Act will allow utilities to accelerate their digital efforts.

February was a devastating month for Texans, as nearly 15 million residents faced water disruptions during winter storms, and nearly 700 water systems issued boil water notices.

Read more about that in the May issue of Pumps & Systems magazine. Freddie Guerra’s title is client solutions manager, digital solutions, at Xylem. He provided great insight for the piece on how utilities should think digitally to prepare for future events like this.

This is the complete interview with Guerra.

1.  What were the biggest issues Texans had to deal with?

The COVID-19 pandemic and recent extreme weather events have brought a new reality into focus for the water industry. These events have laid bare the vulnerability of our infrastructures and exposed weaknesses in some long-standing norms of how utilities and cities operate. Fortunately, these crises have also shone a light on how smart infrastructure solutions can help utilities better weather the storm and enable long-term reliability and resiliency. 

Freddie Guerra

Freddie Guerra

Among the issues faced by utilities in Texas, for example, were challenges with visibility across the enterprise, including an inability to spot risks and vulnerabilities before they occur; inflexible operations, hampering utilities’ ability to respond to crises; and limitations of situational intelligence to make proactive decisions to improve customer service and mitigate environmental risks. Some were better equipped to respond to these challenges than others, having invested in digital technologies that enhanced visibility, continuity and resilience across their networks during the severe weather event.

And the good news is that America’s Water Infrastructure Act (AWIA) will allow utilities to accelerate their efforts to address this new normal, by futureproofing their networks with digital solutions that minimize risks and enhance resiliency.

2. Why did the issues happen the way they happened?

Many utilities are using systems that are no longer fit for purpose given the complexities of the challenges they face—from design and technology, to operating and business models. As utilities prepare their AWIA assessments and plans, there is an opportunity to break from the mentality of “that’s how we’ve always done it” and become part of crafting of “what comes next”.  The AWIA can allow utilities to set a new standard for enterprise visibility, real-time monitoring, and capabilities to spot risks and vulnerabilities before they occur—situational intelligence and optimization—to deal with cyberattacks, malevolent acts, pandemics and epidemics, extreme storm events, climate change and variability.

3. Legacy processes drive reactive behaviors that have not changed in recent decades – why is this the case? What type of reactive behaviors happened?

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when demand for reliable water services was never more important, many utilities were focused on keeping their decades-old systems operational. Many utilities have inadvertently built rigid solutions, processes, and procedures that are not future adaptive. In addition, utilities have known changes were coming but didn’t expect to see them so soon—so they had to deal with avoidable challenges (reactive behaviors) like managing strained personnel resources, battling storm conditions to find and access failures, and navigating through a sea of disconnected data collected from a myriad of sources. Building resilience to these type of events is about ensuring the right information is available to the right person, at the right time to support timely and informed decisions and actions.

4. What types of technology would be better served to handle a disaster like this compared to what has been used?

The great diversity of technology capabilities available to utilities today is creating limitless possibilities. Digital solutions, together with consultative partnerships, are helping utilities to unlock the insights required to make data-informed decisions and detect problems in real-time, before they become major failures.

As utilities look to better withstand these disaster events, now is the time to migrate to cloud, leverage artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and take advantage of sensored networks and digital twins. Many utilities are already reaping the benefits, both economic and environmental.

Huge volumes of data are available via resources and smart equipment connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) and SCADA. Utilities need to consider innovative ways to integrate this data to deliver intelligence that better informs enterprise resource plans (ERPs) prepared as part of AWIA. 

Often, utilities have an abundance of data, but struggle with understanding how to gain the intelligence from it to drive operational decisions. During extreme weather events and other disruptions, for example, the challenge is converting utility data from various systems such as the geographic information system (GIS), damage assessment and inspections, as well as data extracted from machine learning and AI, into usable information. Consideration during the preparation of the ERP should be given to pulling disparate data into a single platform to empower utilities to translate data into actionable intelligence for better decision making. Technology is a critical component of AWIA and allows utilities to be ready to rapidly and effectively assess the damage to their systems and use that information to restores services quickly and safely during a disaster or other event.

5. How can utilities gaining sharper insights into asset health and water quality, allowing them to identify critical problem areas ahead of time?

The AWIA is all about understanding “what is happening in my system?"; “what is likely to happen in my system?”, and “what do I need to do?” In essence, it is about getting the right information to the right person at the right time, to support smart decisions and actions. During disaster events, utility personnel resources are heavily strained and can be challenged to respond effectively and efficiently. A strategy plan intertwined with technology as laid out in AWIA allows utilities to make the correct decisions and carry out the appropriate actions during a utility’s response, to deliver the best outcomes.

6.  What should utilities include in emergency response plans for the future?

For utilities today, reconciling all the data sources and systems, to streamline work processes and to ensure that the right information gets to the right people at the right time, can seem an insurmountable task. Utilities need to move from reactive to predictive operating practices, and work with their solution providers who can help them visualize their systems in real-time so they can more confidently plan for the future. By implementing systems that integrate digital twins, sensored networks, and leveraging machine learning and artificial intelligence, utilities are armed with a complete picture of the end-to-end operations—actionable intelligence to inform decision-making today and tomorrow.