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Perspective

2021 Strategic Directions: Water Report

Sustainable Solutions, Data Use and Integrated Solutions Plugged into a Circular Economy Will Drive Tomorrow’s Water Infrastructure

Technology is taking a firmer grip across the water and wastewater industry, pushing past data analytics to introduce new opportunities from improvements in treatment technology to advances in Internet of Things (IoT) integration. Early adopters are seeing returns while others are just starting to embrace digitization, with the Ohio Rural Water Association’s turning to digital mapping to catalog its utility system and assets as a case in point.

Amid estimates that the world will invest tens of trillions of dollars in infrastructure in the next two decades, utilities are weighing their options around data and sustainability as they look to design tomorrow’s water infrastructure.

Strategically Developing Sustainable Solutions

Sustainability continues to play a starring role as utilities prepare and plan for their future infrastructure. This is particularly true when it comes to efforts that support decarbonization — renewable energy, decarbonization goals and low-carbon building materials. When asked, in a survey of more than 200 U.S. water industry stakeholders for Black & Veatch’s 2021 Strategic Directions: Water Report, which components they plan to include in their sustainability strategies, respondents pointed to renewable energy, water loss mitigation and new/alternative water supplies as their top three focus areas.

With one-third of utilities planning to include new or alternative water supplies in their sustainability strategies, the survey also asked whether respondents plan to consider potable reuse. A combined 56 percent said potable reuse will likely increase in their region; 36 percent said probably not, and 8 percent said definitely not. Potable reuse increasingly is a primary or secondary driver, particularly in arid regions of the U.S. where sustainable water supplies are at a premium, such as Arizona, California, Nevada and Texas.

2021 Water SDR Figure 11

A Growing Embrace of Data

Water and wastewater utilities are becoming more comfortable utilizing data derived from online sensors, according to Black & Veatch’s survey. A combined 89 percent of respondents reported they are “somewhat” or “very” confident in the accuracy of their data. Ninety-five percent said separately that their confidence is increasing.

In the 2020 Strategic Directions: Water Report, most respondents indicated they were collecting a high volume of data but not leveraging value. This illustrates increased awareness that data — both digital and analog — can inform decision-making, from process management to large asset maintenance and rehabilitation.

The increasing adoption of sensors and real-time data in the water industry is linked to continued improvement of sensor technologies and reduction in sensor costs. Seeing this return on investment continues to reinforce their decision to collect, manage and analyze this critical information.

Organizations continue to build knowledge capital and skillsets around managing smart technologies, maximizing data utility through analytics and data-driven decision making. Utilities with teams that specialize in these areas will continue to improve operations and maintenance going forward, allowing them to increase trust and reliance on data. This validation will continue to build additional confidence, resulting in a growing willingness to invest in advanced IoT technology, a critical consideration as industry begins to address replacing its aging assets and embrace a fully connected, integrated system in the future.

Building Tomorrow’s Infrastructure

With this data in hand, what does the future of water infrastructure look like in America? The Biden Administration has laid out significant funding in its proposed American Jobs Plan. As written, the legislation would allocate $111 billion to ensure clean, safe drinking water, including $56 billion to modernize drinking water, wastewater and stormwater systems.

Utility organizations are enthusiastic about the opportunity to develop and implement a broad range of integrated solutions targeting clean energy, resilient water supply and delivery and sustainable solutions to support achievement of U.N. sustainable development goals. Equally exciting is the potential to use this funding to enhance the workforce. This infrastructure bill is an opportunity to re-energize and revitalize the water industry similar to the boom in spending following the Clean Water Act.

Wastewater utilities, for example, historically have been stewards of the environment, and this remains an important guiding principle. Today, some utilities are exploring sustainable solutions to help achieve this goal. This requires a multi-faceted approach to reduce the number, environmental footprint and cost of inputs (e.g., air, energy, chemicals) and incorporates opportunities to upcycle system inputs into resources that can be used elsewhere (e.g., soil amendments, biomaterials, renewable energy). This paradigm shift undoubtedly will result in some exciting and novel innovations in the industry.

When planning tomorrow’s infrastructure, strategists should focus on opportunities to integrate every component of the water life cycle into a broader circular economy system. Water and wastewater utilities could invest in renewable energy, either by purchasing it from a provider or generating their own electricity on-site. Some utilities have sizeable land parcels that could support the development of on-site renewable energy generation.

As the low-carbon fuel standard market continues to drive up the price of natural gas, many utilities are considering renewable natural gas (RNG). This gas could be used to produce materials that can be employed in higher-value industries. One example: the production of packing chips that go into Amazon boxes. A utility could co-locate a wastewater plant next to a factory that produces those chips and use the outputs from the plant to help produce those materials. The waste then would go to an adjacent recycling facility.

Data centers, as another example, require large amounts of high-quality water for cooling and could be co-located next to a wastewater plant, with the treated water used to cool the plant. The heated water then would be pushed back into the wastewater plant in a closed loop. Conceptually speaking, let’s assume the plant is using 20 percent of the flow in the closed loop. Each time it cycles through, it raises the temperature of the wastewater by one or two degrees. This could benefit the biology, offering a better way to integrate the treatment facility into a true circular economy system.

The possibilities for reimagining tomorrow’s water infrastructure are boundless if utilities continue to prioritize integrated solutions, sustainability and data management in planning and implementation. However, the water industry has to remain mindful of ensuring innovation equity, where utilities of all sizes have access to these advanced IoT technologies as they chart this exciting course forward. Doing so will help drive these integrated, smart, connected and sustainable engineered ecosystems.

About the Author

Sandeep Sathyamoorthy serves as global practice and technology leader for innovation and applied research with Black & Veatch’s water business. An industry expert with a track record of successfully leading applied research in wastewater treatment and reuse, Sathyamoorthy is responsible for driving innovation and research across the areas of water and wastewater treatment, sustainability, energy efficiency, solids and organics management, and digital water, analytics and artificial intelligence.

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