Water and Energy: The Next Digital Infrastructure Target
The numbers are hard to ignore.
- In the U.S., 4% of electricity goes to treating, processing, and moving water. With much of its water in the northern part of the state and a large population in the south, that number jumps to 19% in California, where Intertrust has its headquarters.
- 15% of water globally is used in electrical generation, but rises to 45% in the U.S. Coal burning power plants use 40 gallons (151 liters) of water per kWh yet solar only uses .3 gallons (1.1 liters) per kWh and wind is even more efficient at .1 gallons (.4 liters)
- 97% of the Earth’s water is sea water and 2% is held in ice. Of the remaining 1% that the human race depends on, much of it is polluted.
All of this and more was presented at WE3, an event that focused on the intersection of water and energy. The last fact was pointed out by Admiral (retired) Eric Olson, a former Navy Seal turned national security consultant. His presentation focused on the many intertangled threats to world peace that have now replaced the much simpler bipolar power focus of the Cold War. Admiral Olsen noted that a rising population combined with global climate change will push global competition for resources such as water even further with the corresponding increase in instability.
Starting the digital transformation for water utilities
It’s clear that digital technologies will play a critical role in addressing water and energy together for the health of the planet. The event also showed that the water industry is at the beginnings of a digital path that the electrical energy industry has already embarked upon. Around the end of the 2000’s and the beginning of the 2010’s, electrical utilities in the U.S. awoke to the fact that digitization was also going to be core to their businesses and the term “smart grid” became a buzzword throughout the industry.
At WE3, water utility executives discussed how the industry was moving from regarding their customers as just “rate payers” to actual customers, and were implementing new ways of engaging with them. However, an executive from Itron, a major supplier of smart meters and other digital infrastructure technologies to utilities, told a story of how after having to call his water utility several times to get better information on his water use, ended up having to read his water meter himself.
Issues facing water utilities were also illuminated and at Intertrust, we think we can help. Many water utilities are small organizations that have a hard-enough time keeping up with providing clean water according to U.S. Government standards, let alone implement a digital strategy. Others are struggling with collecting and managing their customers’ personal data needed to meet demands such as aiding lower income customers. Intertrust’s Modulus trusted data platform is designed for such use cases and is helping the European energy utility innogy manage data from their home IoT customers and respect their privacy.
Progress is being made. Catherine Sandoval, an associate professor at Santa Clara University and a former California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) Commissioner presented on a CPUC pilot project that shared network communications between a natural gas utility and water utilities to reduce water and gas usage among other goals. San Jose Water Company also talked about how they were using connected sensors to provide real time water pump efficiency testing information into their SCADA systems, helping to balance their pumping needs and energy usage. Considering the scale of the challenges before them, there is hope that water and energy utilities will work with the technology industry to speed up the digital transition.