Water Utilities Are Lagging Other Utilities in the Smart Cities Effort

Oct 28, 2016 10:00 AM ET

Water Utilities Are Lagging Other Utilities in the Smart Cities Effort

Across the U.S., smart city programs are moving beyond press releases, pilot programs and demonstrations. Municipalities are collaborating with industry and utilities to create roadmaps defining their approach to regional integrated smart infrastructure. Water utilities, however, are lagging in the planning process, and risk losing their seat at the table with electric and gas utility peer companies as the smart city programs advance. 

“Water’s current place in the smart city conversation seems out of sync with its important role in communities,” said Andrew Chastain-Howley, a Director in Black & Veatch’s management consulting business. “Water utilities provide essential services, have a wide distributed network of facilities, and support numerous functions tied to electric generation, sanitation and construction, among other key city services.” 

He encouraged utilities to be proactive, as they can benefit from pushing for smart city programs in ways that align with their strategic goals and investment plans. For instance, some utilities in drought-prone areas have implemented advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) – a component of the smart city effort – as a way to support conservation. 

Waiting on the Sidelines 

For water utilities, there hasn’t been as much coalescing around the definition of a smart city as in other utility sectors. Instead, a few utilities with adequate investment resources have acted as early adopters and collaborators. These early adopters are taking action while other utilities largely remain on the sidelines, according to Andy Trump, a Director in Black & Veatch’s management consulting business. 

“Water utilities may still be in the first phase of smart city program adoption,” Trump said. “They are looking at the smart city as a patchwork of siloed programs as opposed to a holistic endeavor that aims to bring together city governments, the private sectors and utilities.” 

According to the Black & Veatch 2016 Strategic Directions: Water Industry report, only about 30 percent of survey respondents indicated that they are leveraging integrated systems and networks, or are aggressively planning to do so. Nearly 30 percent said they had not made much progress in coordinating with their city counterparts on smart city plans, while another 22 percent said they were just beginning to make such efforts. 

Solving Two Issues at Once 

For water utilities that are solving issues associated with aging infrastructure, a business case can be made that updating old resources with new, smart technologies addresses both needs at once, Trump said. For example, smart water hydrants – while still in the conception stage – may signal the beginning of a larger trend of smart water tools. 

“For utilities looking for the best first step, today many are choosing AMI,” Trump said. “Utilities can better predict customer water use to develop active and accurate water consumption information.” Trump said financing concerns are still on the horizon. While some combined utilities have considered piggybacking water services on their private electric networks, successes are few. 

“To date, it has not been a cost-effective solution for water-only utilities,” he said. “Costs of service charges are being considered, but not to the extent as in the electric utility sector.” 

Next Steps Begin with Education 

Water utilities must decide to make smart city involvement a priority, Chastain-Howley said. This begins with education. 

“Industry groups can play a role in educating their members so that they can understand smart city opportunities and challenges,” he noted. 

For example, trade groups can play a meaningful role in coordinating the interests of members in commission-sponsored explorations, such as those being carried out by the California Public Utilities Commission in its water-energy nexus proceeding. 

“In our experience, proactive utilities that leverage data and innovation are better able to adapt and thrive during times of transition,” Chastain-Howley said.