Running out of money, it has been said, is not a serious obstacle. Running out of ideas—now that is a problem. For Jacksonville, Fla., utility JEA, a shortage of capital in the mid-1990s spawned a far-reaching search for good ideas. What materialized from that quest is an operating methodology—operations optimization—that is both innovative and practical, not to mention good for JEA’s bottom line.
The organization’s idea hunt began in 1997 when the Jacksonville Electric Authority merged with the city of Jacksonville’s water and wastewater utilities to form JEA, the eighth-largest public utility in America. Following the merger, there were two forces at work driving innovation in north Florida. One was the desire to find synergies between the electric utility and its newly acquired water/wastewater operations. The second was a move by the U.S. EPA to place the utility under administrative order for failure to invest adequately in infrastructure improvements.
“JEA was required to spend a lot of money to address the infrastructure issue associated with sanitary sewer overflows, so funds were tight when it came to other capital needs,” said Scott Kelly, vice president of water and wastewater systems at JEA. “Since 1997, we have spent $500 million on sanitary sewers alone and $1.9 billion overall. We saw the application of this technology as a way of deferring water system capital expenditures, and that was a very big deal to us.”
Operations optimization—now being implemented at several North American water utilities—is a combination of technological innovation and operational strategies that have enabled the utility to defer several million dollars in capital expenditures, reduce operating costs and improve water quality.
Maximizing assets, capacity
JEA provides water, wastewater and electric service to more than 850,000 accounts in a four-county region on Florida’s Atlantic coast. St. Johns County, on the southern end of the service territory, is the seventh-fastest growing county in the U.S.
JEA has always been an innovator, but the merger drove utility leaders to find efficiencies wherever they could. Operations optimization developed through a joint venture between JEA, EMA, Inc., the AWWA Research Foundation (AwwaRF), the St. Johns River Management District and technology provider Gensym.
Operations optimization has substantially improved JEA’s water system operations by changing the operating mode from reactive to proactive. It uses a SCADA system, along with data collected from a number of other sources, to minimize cost and improve the operating performance of the entire water system.
Operations optimization manages JEA’s consumptive use of the Floridian Aquifer, controls and monitors water quality in real-time, maximizes the value of energy and maximizes the existing capacity of water system assets. Although various forms of optimization have been attempted by water utilities in the past, JEA’s comprehensive approach makes it unique. Operations optimization includes an accelerated software development cycle, the use of advanced and proven software solution techniques from other industries, maximum utilization of existing SCADA system assets and a firm commitment from JEA to successfully operate the system.
“We wanted to be able to bring the same kind of applications we were using at our power production facilities into the water and sewer side. That has positioned us on the cutting edge in the water and wastewater industry,” Kelly said. “To our knowledge, there have been very few applications of this technology within the industry to date.”
The two primary benefits JEA planned to achieve were cost savings and improved aquifer management. JEA draws its water from the Floridian Aquifer under consumptive use limits set by the St. Johns River Management District. The challenge was finding a technologically sound solution to achieve those benefits. That task was led by Michael Eaton, JEA’s manager of GIS and engineering systems.
“The overall goal is really to try and maximize our existing assets and capacity as much as possible,” Eaton explained. “We already had several key pieces to the puzzle to do this. The most important asset was the SCADA architecture, having the network infrastructure to all of our plants and well fields and having the instrumentation and real-time control from one centralized location. The question was: How could we leverage that and take it to the next level?”
How the technology works
Operations optimization at JEA uses a real-time modeling and reasoning technology platform to deploy the application. The modeling-based techniques used include neural networks, constraint-based optimization applications, and hydraulic and mass-balance water distribution simulation models. The reasoning engine platform also provides an advising and control automation mode that inputs optimized pumping schedules directly to the SCADA system. The application design involves developing various modular components that integrate to solve optimization problems and to meet JEA’s operating strategies and objectives.
“We’re now better able to manage the withdrawal, treatment and distribution of water,” said Darren Hollifield, water treatment manager. “If there is better water quality at plant A, then additional flows will be produced at that plant, which allows flow reductions at the other plants where there is a lesser-quality water source.”
Software applications consist of a Data Quality Analyzer, System Scheduler, Water Consumption Forecaster, Water System Simulator, Water Quality Analyzer, Water Supply Analyzer, Pump/Valve Controller, Optimization Monitor and Equipment Clearance Report.
System components are configured to automatically develop an optimized daily operating schedule to start and stop remotely controllable pumps and valves in the water system based on the schedule and time of day. Data from the SCADA system is checked and filtered by the Data Quality Module. The Water Consumption Forecaster provides hourly forecasted consumption for operating areas (sub-grids) within the water system.
The Water Quality Analyzer generates water quality alarms based on sensor data from SCADA and sample data from the Laboratory Information Management System. The Equipment Clearance Report provides information on scheduled maintenance activities affecting system operations.
An integral component is the Water System Simulator, which uses mass balance and simplified hydraulic network modeling techniques to forecast distribution system variables using SCADA data. The Water System Simulator takes, as input, the pump/valve control schedule developed by the System Scheduler and determines if all operating constraints (e.g. reservoir levels and pressures) are satisfied. It generates reports and graphical trends that define and illustrate predicted performance of the daily operating plan.
Operation of the water system changes over time as equipment is taken in and out of service, consumption patterns change, and new facilities are placed into service. The Optimization Monitor continuously monitors conformance to the daily operating plan.
What JEA has done is essentially no different than the transition that has taken place in many industries, automating wherever possible, and enabling just-in-time delivery.
Prior to commencing this project, JEA developed an operations optimization business case that identified multiple opportunities to generate return on investment (ROI). JEA’s ROI has been relatively rapid because optimization was implemented very quickly. Well field optimization was placed into service just six months from project conception. Distribution system optimization was ready for online testing and calibration in 13 months.
This was possible because the utility used applied, sophisticated, off-the-shelf software combined with EMA and Gensym’s automation expertise, and water system hydraulic modeling developed at the University of North Florida. The largest immediate payback is capital cost reduction and deferral. The cost to drill and equip a well at JEA averages $1.4 million, making even a single delayed well significant. Maintenance savings are also substantial.
“We took a snapshot of our pumps before and after optimization at the same facility for the same time period, and we saw 60 to 70% fewer pump starts,” Hollified said. “We haven’t calculated the savings yet, but we know that four years ago, we had a lot more motor failures than we have now.”
The operations optimization system has enabled JEA to accurately forecast next-day demand on a regular basis. Fewer operators are required in the field, but there is a need to have good technical people on hand to ensure the instrumentation functions properly. JEA has combined the role of electrical technicians and electronics technicians into a single job requiring a journeyman electrician’s license.
The introduction of new technology into the water utility environment tends to follow a well-worn path that begins with skepticism and ends with bottom-line improvement. It is the obstacles encountered in the interim that make the process difficult. The paradigm shift in operating strategy created some challenges.
“For years, operators had been reactive to consumption,” Kelly said. “This is a totally different way of thinking now, and you have to build trust in this technology.”
With a no-layoff policy in place, however, resistance waned over time. Operators worked closely with Gensym and EMA staff to incorporate their knowledge of system operations into the end product.
“The level of skill and knowledge that is operating now is head and shoulders above what it used to be,” Hollifield said. “Some people were no longer qualified to operate and had to be reassigned. Others have achieved higher levels of certification.”
Embracing new technology
The water industry has not always been quick to embrace new technology, but success stories like this are quickly changing the way utilities explore the possibilities.
Kelly believes operations optimization represents a potential industry-wide solution to the staffing shortages every utility is facing. “I see it as a window of opportunity,” he said, “to apply technologies that will be less labor-intensive but require higher skill sets. The majority of our staff embraces these technologies when we provide them with the proper tools and training.”
Hollifield still encounters skeptics. “We’ll show our results with graphs and operating data, but often we encounter those who are reluctant to embrace new technology,” Hollifield said. “When you go to conferences, people talk about what they’re going to do and how it’s going to work. We don’t do that. We say, ‘This is what we have done and these are the results.’”
Fortunately, JEA’s results speak for themselves. The tools have been built, the operational changes implemented, and the process of expanding optimization technology to the rest of the utility’s infrastructure is well under way.
“This is a valuable enabling technology that aligns with one of the utility’s strategic initiatives—operational excellence,” Eaton said. “You know, water supply is a resource we need to think about, all of us. I think it’s very important to not take it for granted. The technology is available. We need to use it.”