Feature: Smart water network needed to drive efficiency gains

Posted at July 18, 2012 » By : » Categories : News » Comments Off on Feature: Smart water network needed to drive efficiency gains

Water shortages and inefficiencies remains an ongoing problem across the UK, warns Andy Slater of smart technology specialist Sensus.

Climate change, increases in energy prices, and ever rising levels of demand, mean water companies are under increasing pressure to make the best use of a finite and limited resource. And with the population expected to increase by approximately 23% by 2035 in London and the South East of England alone1, the gap between demand and supply is only going to continue to grow.

As water resources come under increasing strain, it is imperative that we investigate new ways to improve efficiency. Instead of relying on short-term solutions that impact customers, we need to consider a more sustainable way of managing water resources and calls on the government to lead in the establishment of a national Smart Water Task Force.

Starting with the smart grid

According to a report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, 3365 million litres of water is lost to leaks every day in England and Wales. Smart water meters can help to identify leaks quicker, but with only 40% of domestic customers across England and Wales2 currently metered,encouraging changes at infrastructure level can help accelerate the adoption of new technologies such as smart water meters, whilst also reducing costs and improving efficiency.

Recent recommendations suggest that 80% of households should have smart meters by 20202, however this is just part of creating a wider smart water network, which is crucial for the security of the water industry. We have seen the positive impact of initiatives in the energy sector, such as the Ofgem-led Smart Grid Task Force, to define the benefits at national level of a smart grid and to develop the use cases model behind it. This raises the question, could the water industry replicate this momentum to enable utilities to drive efficiency gains across the industry?

The business case for Smart Water Networks is still evolving. As with energy, the greatest business gains for water utilities will be in the development of methods to retrieve real-time information from the water distribution network, as well as from smart water meters. With the wide range of challenges that the industry faces, a smart water networkis a key tool in transforming water utilities operations.

Through the creation of a smart water network,water companies can monitor and control pressure, flow rates, levels, water quality, detect and locate leakages, and reduce instances of pressure induced bursts on the network. It can also improve the safe handling of waste water, offering more advanced levels of control and reducing the number of unplanned sewage discharges. This helps meet the increasing economic and environmental demands being placed upon the industry.


Reliance on energy

The water and energy utilities are interdependent on each other. Typically up to 20% of operating costs for a water utility are directly related to the cost of buying electricity to pump water, and often they are one of the biggest consumers of electricity on the local electricity network. Interestingly, the peak demand for water occurs at the same time as the peak demand for electricity. This has a knock-on impact on the energy companies who have to strengthen their power networks for peaks in consumption.

Water utilities buy energy at the half hour rate so are sensitive to time-of-day peaks in demand – hence they buy the most energy at the highest price as well as accentuating the peak load on the electricity grid.

With rising prices making energy an increasingly expensive factor in the cost of supply of water, the combination of time-of-day tariffs with smart water meters could possibly encourage customers to move their high volume, yet often discretionary, use of water to non-peak times (sprinklers, filling swimming pools,washing cars, etc.).

The strong linkage between the water and electricity industries needs to be recognised, and could be fostered by closer interworking of the Smart Grid Task Force, which exists, and a Smart Water Networks Task Force, if formed.

Leading water utilities are now finding that near real-time information from their distribution networks delivers intelligence which helps them reduce costs, identify and fix leakages quicker, task field crews more effectively, and helps transform their daily operations from a reactive to a proactive nature. This is one of the biggest business drivers behind the smart water network concept and goes well beyond the normal cost/benefit case built for smart metering.

Leading the way

Sensus’ strategic intent is to provide a portfolio of technology which can leverage existing investments, while transitioning to a new approach. Central to a smart water network is a communications system that can connect reliably to plant which is often buried in pits or located deep inside buildings.

Long-range radio is a two-way communications system for smart metering and smart grid applications. Sensus FlexNet long range radio system, which was designed from the outset for utilities, enables smart grid controllers, smart meters and other sensors in the distribution network to be connected to head-end systems. It is a highly secure, reliable and cost effective network technology with battery life of 15 years for remote devices such as water meters.

Long-range radio is currently being trialled with a number of utilities in Reading, Ipswich and Scotland by SmartReach, a collaboration of Arqiva, BT, BAE Systems Detica and Sensus. These trials cover an area of around 80 square kilometres containing some 200,000 homes.

Realising the benefits of a smart water network

Major water companies are well aware of the need to act and Thames Water, with over three million customers, is particularly forward thinking. Earlier this year, Thames Water announced the extension of its smart water and smart grid trial with SmartReach. The trial is being extended to enable them to assess the performance of the communications system in locations with different housing stock and difficult to reach, underground meter locations.

Widely deployed in the US, where over ten million smart meter and grid end points are already connected to long-range radio based networks from Sensus, the technology has been shown to be suitable for meters located in normally hard-to-reach locations such as meter pits, cellars and basements. Thames Water has already seen in the trial that this system offers a simple, efficient and non-obstructive solution to building a smart water network.

However, in order to enable widespread adoption across the UK this new approach to water management needs to be supported by an industry wide ‘best practise for smart water networks’.

Through developing this best practise, water companies could demonstrate how digitising the distribution network could enable them to meet the increasing economic and environmental demands placed upon them and serve their customers more effectively. This could be done via a common industry-wide vision based on agreed use cases which would demonstrate the operational improvements and economic benefits of this approach. This would in turn enable regulators and utilities to invest with confidence in technologies that will drive a step change in our water networks performance.

This best practise should be drafted by a body incorporating regulators, water companies, and the government to provide the necessary leadership and authority to enable utilities to reference the work as they re-negotiate their regulated business plans with Ofwat. This could be achieved through a pan-industry Smart Water Task Force which would work closely with SWAN (international).

Looking to the future

With water set to become an increasingly scarce resource, it is clear that we need to look towards ways to improve today’s aging infrastructure. Add in the high energy costs associated with water supply, and the increased consumption resulting from improving living standards, and it is clear that we need a more sustainable way of delivering water resources.

Smart water networks are an important part of the solution to these challenges, however strong leadership and support will be needed to drive change. It is therefore crucial that the government and all other appropriate stakeholders give a lead to the industry and look beyond just smart metering to establish smart water networks. This means ensuring the most appropriate technologies are chosen for projects so that the benefits can be realised by all utilities.

There has never been a better time for the government and other appropriate stakeholders to support the industry by looking beyond the possibilities of installing water meters and establishing a Smart Water Networks Task Force. If the energy sector can do it, then we see no reason why this success cannot be replicated in the water industry, providing valuable efficiency gains for years to come.

1. Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) State of the Nation Report 2012
2. The Water White Paper – Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

by Andy Slater, Sensus

altaltAndy Slater is director EMEA at Sensus, a global leader in utility infrastructure systems and resource conservation, providing advanced metering infrastructure, smart grid and conservation solutions for electric, water and gas utilities. Prior to this Andy has held a number of key positions at Presence Networks, Pipex, Colt Telecommunications, Dell and BT.

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