Summit Presenters Discuss Slow Adoption of Smart Technologies

April 10, 2015
Speakers at London's World Water-Tech Investment Summit indicated resistance in North America and Europe for utilities to adopt new technologies

Innovators seeking to have high-end, smart technologies adopted by the water industry—particularly in North America and Europe—face an uphill struggle, as discussed at the two-day World Water-Tech Investment Summit in London. According to speakers at the event, a combination of risk-averse utilities, regulatory hurdles and a simple inability to deal with high-tech approaches rendered many innovations problematic.

“The harsh reality is that we’re not that interested in fundamental R&D," said Professor Tony Conway, strategic programs director at United Utilities, which provides water and wastewater services to a large swathe of northwest England. “What we are interested in is new technology that we can get hold of to drive efficiencies.

“Quite often, we will be approached by folk who are bringing a technology to us, but not an outcome. What’s much better is something wrapped around [the innovation] so they can say ‘This is how you can use it.’ You need a vendor really to understand the business, not just … the technology.”

There was a different problem facing innovators in North America, said Mark LeChevallier, innovation and environmental stewardship director at American Water: take an innovation to the board of a utility there and the worried reaction was likely to be: "Why? What’s wrong with the water?”

Regulatory hurdles could be virtually non-existent in some areas of water handling technology, very high in others, said LeChevallier: “If you want to get a new disinfectant approved, forget it.”

Innovators had a better chance of having their technology adopted by utilities in the Asia-Pacific region, which tended to be less innately conservative in their outlook, the conference heard.

And while "big data" was now making surging amounts of information potentially available to utilities, most simply had no way to make use of it: “95% of utilities in the U.S. have no capability to use that data,” said Trevor Hill, chairman and CEO of US of utility-to-utility data solutions provider Fathom. And even those that could handle it used just 40% of the data available—from sensors in their network, for example—due to insufficient staff time to handle it, added Ken Thompson, director, intelligent water solutions, at CH2M Hill.

There was more than enough new technology available to the industry, but getting it in front of the people who mattered in utilities was difficult, Conway accepted. “Go in at senior level, because the senior folk really want change. There’s a gloopy middle layer in water utilities. They’re not bad people, but they’ve perhaps tried something [innovative] in the past, it’s not worked and they are really difficult to penetrate.”

On a more positive note, the conference heard from Bernard Tan, managing director of Singapore’s Public Utilities Board, who spoke on the Asian city-state’s success in recycling. “Every drop of water is reused,” he said, talking on "Water in the resilient city." Under the NEWater system, a three-stage purification process meant that recycled water now made up close to 30% of Singapore’s potable supplies “and we’re due to raise that to 50%.”

Although the process—involving microfiltration, reverse osmosis and UV disinfection—meant that the recycled water was perfectly drinkable, it had been essential to gain public buy-in. “Engagement with stakeholders was very important to get acceptance of NEWater. We had to convey the message that NEWater is safe and meets World Health Organization drinking [standard] guidelines.”

Source: World Water-Tech Investment Summit

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