While most of the country continued to dig itself out after a series of snowstorms, I spent last week in sunny San Diego, CA, at Distributech. Some of you may be familiar with Distributech, an annual conference that focuses primarily on power utility topics ranging from automation and demand response to advanced metering and the smart grid. In the last few years, Distributech has expanded its reach beyond electric utilities to include an entire track devoted to water technology.
Under the heading “Challenging the Future of Water,” Distributech’s water track included seminars covering a variety of topics like AMI, cybersecurity, mobile work force management, and the smart grid customer experience. I was fortunate enough to be able to sit in on a few of these presentations and get a “boots on the ground” perspective on real-world experiences with smart water technologies.
For the present, the smart grid is still primarily a power utility issue, but the streamlining of operations and automation possibilities touted by smart grid proponents are applicable to water utilities as well. In fact, the idea of a smart water grid has been in the works for several years now, spearheaded in part by IBM’s Big Green Innovations campaign in 2007. In 2008 as part of a $20-billion IT-related water portfolio, IBM teamed up with Intel to form “a working group to study how information technology can be used to improve water management.”
Specifically, IBM decided to capitalize on the opportunity to mimic the path of smart grid implementation for electric utilities by upgrading water conveyance systems. Part of this smart water grid implementation involves the collection of information related to water delivery, water quality, and non-revenue water.
There’s another reason a smart water grid might make sense: the water/energy nexus. Because of the complex relationship between energy use and water delivery, “smarter” water use via increased water conservation and less water waste would allow water purveyors to reduce operating costs and manage water demand: two abilities not insignificant to big water uses like agriculture, beverage manufacturers, and semiconductor companies, as well as private and public water utilities—all of whom are keen on controlling costs by managing their water resources wisely.
At the seminars I attended, the consensus seemed to be that overall attempts at applying smart grid technologies to water resource management had been successful. Longtime readers of Water Efficiency are already aware of the many benefits associated with automatic metering (AMR/AMI), and at the conference the utilities that presented their experiences all substantiated what many of us already know—that adding AMR/AMI systems improves customer service, aids in billing and tracking water use, and can help utilities prevent water loss via advanced leak detection. On the other hand, many presenters admitted that, for most water utilities, the advanced smart grid technologies embraced by power providers are still out of reach—mostly due to cost and the unique challenges faced by water purveyors that can impact staffing and equipment replacement or retrofits.
So what do you think? Is the “smart water grid” just a new label for the water efficiency protocols we’ve been discussing for years? Must the smart grid (for power or water) depend upon a centralized network, or can the principals of quality control, automated monitoring, and fine-tuned distribution be applied to diverse and distributed networks? And when most water utilities are struggling to plug leaks, improve billing and customer service, and protect their source supply—all within smaller, stricter budget parameters—does it makes sense to put the cart before the horse by discussing technologies that may be out of reach for many communities?