Editor's note:We've had it with words like “sustainable.” Marketers neutralize their impact by applying concepts to products and services that don't qualify.
Unless referring to the beverage marketed by actress Jennifer Aniston, “smart water” is similarly meaningless. But having identified a rich sales opportunity in the energy-intensive water and wastewater markets, companies use the term to demonstrate their solution transfers seamlessly from one market (electricity) to another (water).
We're not convinced it's that easy.
In our opinion, a “smart grid” monitors what's happening with the assets that comprise the grid and allows managers to move resources from one asset to another as needed. Electricity is lighter and thus more transferable than water, making the second half of our definition much more difficult for people who move water from place to place. But having deployed SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) and other telemetric solutions to maximize pipe and pump and tank and well operations, we think many of you are already there in spirit.
Some solutions focus instead on consumption and billing: using wireless communications to improve the accuracy and/or frequency of meter readings. But although vendors can develop a solution around whatever technology an operation already has, achieving meaningful functionality often requires additional equipment as well as employees (or consultants) with expertise in analyzing and integrating communications systems and equipment.
That's difficult to do within a single jurisdiction, much less across boundaries. We've seen individual communities network streetlighting (see “Control Freaks” on page 40 of December 2008). We're watching state, county, and suburban managers move step-by-step toward regionalizing traffic control (see “Project fail-safe” on page 34 of this year's April issue). But nationwide, like we're trying to do with electricity?
What is “smart” water, anyway? Can the water industry simply copy the solutions being used to deploy smart electric grids? What does applying electrical terms — “outages” versus “service disruption” — to water say about a marketer's understanding of your unique challenges?
We explored the issue for those of you being urged to use the latest technology to manage this finite resource.
Last month, executives from Schneider Electric, Mueller Water Products Inc., Telvent, and other companies convened in Paris for the inaugural meeting of the Smart Water Networks Forum. Their goal is to help you use the vast amount of data your operation generates to lower energy use, extend asset life, and enhance reliability.
Though not yet a member, IBM's a likely candidate. Having targeted water as one of 10 industries that can benefit from its advanced analytics, technology services, and business consulting capabilities, the company's first portfolio of Strategic Water Management Solutions includes real-time metering. Their pilot project conducted with the water and information technology (IT) departments of Dubuque, Iowa, that proves customers will use less water if they can access consumption data online just earned an EPA State Revolving Loan Fund Award for Sustainable Public Health Protection.
Some of these companies are industry stalwarts, others are relative newcomers. Either way, a technology-based sales pitch faces some real challenges. Water and wastewater managers understand the potential benefits of operating in a data-driven environment, but sometimes lack the means. In a survey of 300 water utilities released last year by business systems solutions provider Oracle, for example, two-thirds of respondents agree they should deploy technology like “smart metering” but only one-third are doing so. Less than 10% have fully implemented smart metering. The reasons? Lack of cost recovery or measurable return on investment (46%) and upfront expenses (42%).
Of course, measuring consumption is just one aspect of a truly smart grid. There are other differences between the water and energy sectors, as well.