Smartly Does It

Smart power grids have paved the way for a more efficient approach to water using meters to prevent waste. Rowan Watt-Pringle looks at smart water grid technology and its incorporation into existing infrastructure.


As water prices increase and environmental and conservation concerns escalate, water utilities and consumers need to look at better ways of managing their water use. According to Bastian Fischer, Oracle Utilities vice president and general manager, smart grids are key to addressing this.

Oracle Utilities provides software applications that give water utilities valuable business insights and help them to respond to industry and customer demands. "The biggest challenge for water utilities is to keep water flowing at affordable rates while reducing waste," says Fischer. "To help achieve this, utilities need a fail-proof infrastructure supported by sufficient IT technology. Using smart meter data management software, utilities can track water use in real-time to detect and fix leaks faster, while helping customers do the same."

Fischer adds that the most effective way for both customers and utilities to reduce waste and increase efficiency is through increased communication and collaboration. This is where the smart grid comes in.

"Smart grids enable two-way communications and develop the dialogue between customers and water suppliers," says Fischer. "They provide the infrastructure and applications to identify and resolve inefficiencies in water use, bolster customer service and help conserve water by providing the right tools to monitor usage."

"Oracle Utilities provides software applications that give water utilities valuable business insights."

Smart meters are the foundation for any smart grid, measuring energy in short intervals, while allowing the customer to actively make choices about their energy use. "To take this a step further, utilities are investing in a collection of technologies, where smart meters collect data and customer-usage information, relaying it to a central data centre," expands Fischer.

Claire Temple, solicitor at Osborne Clarke, an international law firm involved in several smart electricity grid pilot projects and advising clients from the water, electricity and renewables sectors, highlights one reason why smart grids are coming to the fore: "A real problem for developed countries like Britain is an ageing asset base. Smart metering will enable water companies to diagnose, treat and deal with leaks and faults quickly and efficiently."

Temple adds, "By reducing non-revenue water, water companies will conserve supply and save costs. The obvious benefits to the water industry could lead to far more efficient water use."

For example, Temple says that of the water currently being treated to the highest standard (for domestic consumption in cooking, washing and drinking) only a very small percentage is actually used for that purpose.

"Despite this, it is very difficult for water companies to say how much of this water (and which water) actually requires treating to this standard," she elaborates, "so far more water is treated to drinking standards than is actually required. This means incurring higher costs, chemical use and energy than is really necessary. Smart technology could dramatically reduce the amount of water that is treated to drinking standards whilst still allowing customers sufficient supply. "

Smart grid technology

On the demand side, meanwhile, Temple believes that more accurate and real time data collection and analysis will allow innovation of technologies and even effective campaigns to encourage better efficiency.

"Smart meter data management software enables utilities to help regulators establish realistic performance-based incentives for utilities to reduce water loss," explains Fischer. "The faster utilities can detect the size and prioritise repairs for leaks, the greater their ability will be to take advantage of these incentives."

Smart metering technology and customer care and billing applications handle every aspect of the customer lifecycle – from collections and payment processing to sharing precise usage data, while the ability to monitor water usage in real-time also allows utilities to respond to prices hikes and inform their customers accordingly.

Learning from electricity

According to Temple, "The water industry can learn important lessons from the electricity industry's experience in developing and applying smart technology. However, there are differences between the two industries and therefore in how smart technology can be of benefit."

As a finite resource with relatively constant supply, water does not have the same fluctuating supply issues to manage as electricity. "However, capturing data about how and when people use water is as useful to the water industry as information on energy use is to the electricity industry," Temple points out. "The capture and analysis of this information will help with efficient water use and efficiency on the customer / demand side and better management of assets on the supply side."

Integrating smart grids into existing infrastructure

One of the primary concerns surrounding the implementation of smart water grids is their integration into existing utilities networks to create an interactive information grid.

"The primary challenge for utilities looking to convert to a smart water grid is dealing with the huge increase in the quantity of data produced by smart grid technologies," explains Fischer, highlighting a recent Lux Research survey, which revealed that utility companies will have to manage as much as 900% more data.

"A separate Oracle survey of 50 senior utility executives also showed that over half of utilities are concerned that their current IT applications will not be able to scale their needs," adds Fischer.

"For utilities to make the most of the benefits offered by smart water grids they need to make some fundamental changes to their infrastructure," he continues. "Business technology such as meter data management applications are designed to help utilities manage data volumes and develop new business processes that maximise value."

Furthermore, Fischer explains that water operators and water treatment facilities, as large power consumers, are becoming more and more tightly integrated into the entire energy supply chain. "The aim is twofold," he says "Shifting the energy consumption as much as possible to off-peak periods and consuming energy when renewable energy is available." As such, water operators are able to store electricity in their water reservoirs and are an active element of the energy smart grid.

Other challenges to the introduction of smart water grids include cyber security and information privacy. "With smart grids generating so much more data, water utilities must have the necessary security infrastructure to protect customer information and ensure smart meters are secure from hackers and other cyber attacks," Fischer points out.

Legal and financial challenges

Smart water grids have some hurdles to overcome, however, and Temple cites legal issues being wrestled with by electricity industry pilot groups. These revolve around the IP in the technology, data privacy, data protections and data ownership, but Temple theorises that perhaps solutions found for the electricity market will be transferable so that challenges will be significantly less problematic for the water industry.

"Temple believes that many authorities are starting to see the benefits of smart grids."

As well as legal challenges, there are financial considerations. "Smart meters will cost significantly more than traditional meters," relates Temple. "There are clear cost benefits to managing water systems 'smartly', but someone, somewhere will have to foot the bill."

Temple says that it is hard to predict who this will be, especially as consumers already face annual water bill increases. "The Water Services Regulations Authority (Ofwat) would understandably resist such costs being transferred to end users until the technology is shown to be cost-effective and contribute to sustainable water management," she adds.

The potential of intelligent systems

Fischer claims that there is always scope to ensure that consumers understand the full impact that smart grids can have on their water usage and cost management.

"It is also important that water utilities are getting maximum return and business value from smart grid investments and passing this on to consumers," he asserts. "This in turn will help to drive take-up and ensure that investment in these technologies continues to grow."

Temple believes that many authorities are starting to see the benefits of smart grids. "Whilst not quite at the stage of installing smart water meters in all end users' homes, water companies have recognised the power of intelligent monitoring of water supply and data," she states. "For example, Thames Water currently uses TaKaDu's monitoring technology to provide real-time knowledge and alerts about its water distribution infrastructure."

As well as this, there is room for the range of data supplied by TaKaDu to Thames to widen, thus enabling more smart grid-like technology in the British water industry, leading Temple to conclude: "It seems that the water industry recognises the benefits of smart metering and these giant utilities are embracing the innovation required, it just needs some time to develop its strategy."