How German Utilities Are Fast-tracking Progress With Digital Twins

Aug. 12, 2022
What can U.S. utilities learn from digital twin usage in Europe?

Europe’s smart water market is set to grow by almost 15% annually from 2020 to 2030, as municipalities double down on their transition toward truly modern water networks .

Multiple factors, from infrastructure stimulus and evolving regulatory standards to technology innovation and decarbonization, are driving utilities to optimize their networks. Digitally enabled solutions make these upgrades more affordable and sustainable than traditional approaches while delivering major gains in areas like metering, leakage management and energy efficiency.

As utilities across Europe and beyond look to drive progress, utilities across Germany are setting the bar.

Water challenges meet their match

Germany is leaning into the digital water opportunity, building on its heritage of technology innovation and pioneering environmental policy. The country’s water infrastructure is already highly digitalized: embedded sensors, off-line computer simulation, SCADA and data management and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software have been widely implemented. Now, municipalities are accelerating their transformation with the deployment of network-level solutions that support more resilient, efficient and sustainable water management.

Across Germany, utilities are leveraging digital twin technology coupled with hydroinformatics – the convergence of advanced data science and water expertise – to improve network visibility, performance and compliance. The application of artificial intelligence (AI), whether at the asset, process or system level, provides real-time visibility and predictive capabilities. This arms utilities with the data they need to cut costs, increase water and energy efficiency, better withstand extreme weather, and accelerate progress towards “net-zero” carbon operations.

German utilities have been early adopters of AI-powered solutions to optimize treatment plant performance, for example. These solutions leverage near real-time data, applying it to process models to deliver operational recommendations, predictive capabilities and decision-making support. This helps managers run their treatment plants more effectively, safely and at reduced cost by:

  • Improving operational procedure and resource efficiency by monitoring energy and chemicals;
  • Enhancing effluent stability to meet regulatory requirements and increase confidence;
  • Enabling expedient adjustments to influent changes through early-warning alarms and automated plant operation; and 
  • Empowering operators to detect events by understanding if sensor readings align with expected future conditions..

Treatment System Optimization: Win-win for Cuxhaven Treatment Plant

German utility EWE WASSER GmbH (EWE), wanted a system to optimize the energy consumption associated with aeration while improving safety with better system control of chemical usage. These objectives went hand in hand with ensuring compliance with local effluent limits at the Cuxhaven treatment plant.

EWE partnered with Xylem to deploy a treatment system optimization solution, which uses machine learning to create models of the carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous elimination processes based on data from the plant’s SCADA system. Several “virtual sensors” were developed to calculate an estimate of the incoming carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous loads of the influent.

Now, each process receives optimal aeration and chemical inputs to match the chemical and biological oxygen demand. It is a new level of control that has helped the plant accurately estimate influent concentration and optimize the aeration process while meeting regulatory requirements. It’s a win-win.

Since implementing the solution, part of the Xylem Vue digital solutions portfolio, the Cuxhaven treatment plant has shown a 30% reduction in aeration energy usage, corresponding to 1.2 million kWh annually, while ensuring that all plant effluent concentrations continue to maintain regulatory compliance.

Digital twin deployments continue to gain pace in Germany, from smaller cities like Herford, to the country’s largest urban centers of Hamburg and Berlin.

Following Germany’s lead

The German experience shows how the digital twin can be a powerful catalyst for transformation. Whether at the asset, process or system level, utilities can unlock big results quickly by putting their digital twin to work in the right way. In many cases, however, a lack of frameworks to connect innovations across the digital ecosystem makes it challenging for utilities to unlock their full value.

Maximizing the digital twin starts with understanding the levels at which it can be deployed:

  1. Visibility: At its most basic level, a digital twin shows operators what is happening within an asset, process or system right now. This application relies on the operator to take action based on visibility of current operations.
  2. Scenarios: At this level, the digital twin is capable of processing variables to predict an outcome, but it still requires the operator to manually optimize the asset, process or system.
  3. Recommendations: In more sophisticated applications, the digital twin generates multiple scenarios and provides operational recommendations to achieve set KPIs. The operator then chooses a course of action based on these recommendations. Think GPS.
  4. Control: When combined with decision support systems and water expertise, the digital twin has the potential to deliver autonomous, optimized control, freeing up operators to focus on other tasks. Think self-driving car!

Ultimately, the digital twin is an enabling technology – not a solution – and its potential is realized through how the data is applied.

Setting up for success

While the path to digital transformation is different for every water manager, there are some common steps in the experience of Germany’s pacesetting utilities. These present a starting framework for U.S. utilities to investigate and evaluate next steps in their digital journey.

  • Collaboration: Ongoing consultation between utility leadership and operations teams to identify areas where additional data could inform more efficient operational or planning decisions. From here, utilities can establish a baseline by assessing what real-time data is available, and if and how that data is being used to make improvements.
  • Pilot projects: Evaluating how a digital twin can add value in the utility’s unique context through a small initial project. This is a straightforward, low-cost route to determine challenges, opportunities and potential ROI of a digital twin investment.
  • Smart prioritization: Prioritizing projects appropriate to the utility’s unique requirements – whether optimizing a single asset or process, or deploying the digital twin at a system-wide level.

As water utilities embed digital solutions throughout their networks, advanced digital twin applications enable water managers to cut through the data deluge for make smarter capital and operational decisions. Digital twin deployments can help water operators accelerate to deliver big results quickly, and set up for a more resilient and sustainable water future.

About the Author

Gunnar Brüggmann | Business Development Director

Gunnar Brüggmann is business development director for Xylem.