The cloud is disrupting the utility industry - are you prepared?

Article | May 9, 2019
The digitisation of the water industry has been front of mind for many utilities lately, with a surge of technological advancements now available. But what do these new technologies actually mean for the day-to-day operations of Australian water utilities? One key factor is network visibility. If you can see what is happening across your entire network, it’s easier to plan, predict and manage your assets and services, and the best way to do this is through the cloud.


A recent Microsoft report, titled Water Industry Benefits of moving to Cloud technology, found that the cloud is becoming widely accepted across most industries, with 70 per cent of organisations using or investigating cloud computing solutions.


Microsoft found that for water utilities, moving to the cloud is a part of a utility’s ‘Digital Transformation’ and can produce significant benefits, ranging from operational cost reduction to business agility.


Cloud computing uses a network of remote sensors to collect and process data that is stored over the internet rather than in one specific location, so it can be accessed by a mobile workforce. The use of cloud-based technologies offer water utilities the ability to remotely gather information about their entire network in real-time, which can be used to make important operational decisions.


For example, real-time data could help a utility detect an issue on its network, allowing it to send out workers to fix the problem as soon as possible. Network monitoring data can also help identify the likely causes of certain issues and provide an early warning before an issue arises so predictive maintenance can be undertaken – saving substantial maintenance costs.


How water utilities can harness the cloud


So how exactly can water utilities use the cloud to improve their operations? One key way is through water quality monitoring.


The report Characterising the relationship between water quality and water quantity by Water Quality Australia says that a decline in water quality is often the first sign that ecosystems are under stress, but this can be addressed by “identifying trends and patterns through interrogating routine monitoring data sets using emerging modelling tools”.


While changes in water quality are a key indicator of overall ecosystem health, for drinking water networks, they can potentially be a serious safety and economic problem.


Aging and decaying water infrastructure can cause water quality issues as well as water shortage problems through leaks. Contamination threats, pollution and use of desalination and recycled water can also change water quality.


Sending workers out to remote locations to monitor infrastructure regularly is a costly exercise and, if locations are remote, there are also potential worker safety hazards. Most Australian utilities don’t have the manpower to be able to monitor distant parts of their network 24 hours a day.


To avoid these problems, or at least identify them before they become serious issues, water utilities need to be able to monitor every part of their network in real-time, not just at the post-treatment plant stage of water processing.


This is where the cloud comes in, as cloud-based technologies such as remote water quality analysers can be installed at certain locations around the network. Data from these sensors can then be sent to a water utility to action immediately. This reduces the cost of manual monitoring and can also save money through identifying network efficiencies.


Utilities need to collect actionable data


With the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other evolving technologies, the ability to collect network data is growing, but this can also lead to a utility having more data than they know what to do with.


Len McKelvey, CEO of TracWater, an Australian company that works with utilities and offers battery-powered cloud-based water quality monitoring products, says the key is for utilities to collect ‘actionable data’.


“If utilities are only looking at a small percentage of their network monitoring data, they are likely missing out on identifying efficiencies that can save time and money in the future. That’s if they are even monitoring their whole network.


“We work with utilities to install cloud computing technologies that have the processing power to actually analyse every bit of data collected along a water distribution network and automatically convert it into actionable water quality information.


“In-built algorithms constantly validate the quality of the water in your network in real-time, and the technology detects and identifies systems faults or maintenance requirements, providing invaluable verification and support for decision-making.”


Mr McKelvey said the cloud is not only allowing for continuous real-time monitoring, but for utilities to access this data instantly on any device, using only the internet.


“At TracWater, our customers can log into a portal to see data from any of their monitoring devices anywhere in the world. There are also user-configurable alarms that will alert the utility straight away if there is an urgent problem in the network.


“Continuous monitoring through cloud-based technologies allows utilities to see the specific information they need across what is often a large geographical area. This has a significant impact on operations, costs and safety. It just makes sense for a utility to be able to see their whole network.”


TracWater cloud-based water quality remote sensors use 3G/4G wireless communication and are specifically designed to be self-sustaining on long-life battery power or solar power.


My operations are fine – why bother with the cloud?


Digitisation is occurring in all industries and while the water sector is lagging behind, change is happening.


Issues with aging infrastructure and water quality are not new challenges, but the difference now is there is a higher demand from customers for transparency about their services and the water they are drinking, as well as more avenues for public complaints to be heard, meaning there is now increased pressure on utilities to deliver.


We’ve seen how the digitalisation and decentralisation of information has changed the way the energy industry operates, with customers having more control of information about their services. With advancements in technology, there is now a risk that the public could know more about the state of the water network than the utilities if utilities are not keeping up with new technologies.


Water utilities need to use cloud-based resources to measure critical indicators and ensure they have full visibility of their network, so that they can continue to deliver high quality drinking water and stay ahead of any potential problems.


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