As digital solutions demonstrate the potential to transform water systems and address escalating challenges of accessibility, affordability, and resilience, Beijing Drainage Group (BDG) has been at the forefront of the movement toward digital transformation.
The utility was also a key contributor in Xylem’s recent paper, Ripple Effect – A Movement Towards Digital Transformation. To dig deeper into BDG’s journey and some of the innovative strategies they are deploying, Shuping Lu, Xylem’s President of China and Asia, spoke to Yongtao Ge, Director of Operations at BDG.
Shuping Lu: Many utilities still struggle to embrace the power of digital. As you look across the global water industry, what are the main issues we face in accelerating transformation?
Yongtao Ge: Digital transformation isn’t new; it has been on the agenda for more than a decade. However, few utilities have tapped into its potential, and many still lack an understanding of how to harness the power of digital to address challenges unique to their operations. As a result, they are hesitant in their approach.
A lot of the issues come down to one fundamental question: what exactly do you want to achieve? An overall, big-picture idea of the operational problem you are trying to solve is essential, but many water utilities are ambiguous about this. Without clarity, there is no strategy to underpin an effective digital journey. You need to have a framework. Only then can you collaborate with technology providers to design and implement smart solutions that drive transformation forward.
Shuping Lu: BDG was one of the first utilities in China to propose the concept of an integrated treatment plant network. Can you describe your approach to digital and the importance of collaboration?
Yongtao Ge: When we started our three-year digital action plan for our sewage treatment plants back in 2016, there were few examples to learn from. As the project evolved, we looked at international best practices, leaning into the experiences of different utilities from around the world. We also developed close relationships with companies like Beijing Enterprises Water Group, Beijing Capital Group, Shenzhen Water and Environment Group, and of course, Xylem.
By combining our expertise, experiences and resources, we could move further, faster, and make real progress towards achieving a “treatment plant of the future.” We’ve already created different digital platforms to manage everything from flood prevention to chemical dosing for water treatment. We’re still only at Smart Water 1.0, but with further innovation and collaboration, we can quickly move to version 2.0, 3.0, and beyond.
Shuping Lu: Can you give us more detail on how you implemented your digital action plan – what steps were involved?
Yongtao Ge: It took us three years to implement our digital action plan, but every step has been worth the investment. We started in 2019, and initially spent six months laying out what kind of smart water management we needed – that initial idea of knowing and understanding the problem to be solved.
We then curated a team of experts from across the business – people who were highly skilled in things like equipment management and automation control.
We understand the importance of putting people at the center of our digital strategy, and by including them at the ideation stage, they played a vital role in shaping the process.
Then, we carried out a feasibility study. These were ideas and smart water management concepts that our team had identified, but we still had to find a way to implement them. So, we recruited a number of partners with a wide variety of capabilities to help us design and deploy the right solutions to realize our vision. It took more than a year, but we finally finished it in 2022.
We’ve a lot done, but there’s more to do. For us, innovation doesn’t stop – it’s a journey of continuous exploration and turning small ripples into big waves.
Shuping Lu: BDG’s experience really shows the value in taking an incremental approach to digital transformation. What other benefits has digital transformation provided – particularly from a sustainability and carbon neutrality perspective?
Yongtao Ge: Sustainability plays a significant role in driving digital transformation. We’ve shaped our digital program to support Beijing’s carbon neutrality targets of achieving “peak carbon” emissions by 2030 and becoming “carbon neutral” by 2060.
Our Wujiacun sewage plant is a great example of the role digital can play in becoming more sustainable. For example, before we implemented our digital program, the plant had a daily processing capacity of 80,000 tons. Now, thanks to advanced solutions, we’ve increased our capacity by 20%. The plant can now process up to 100,00 tons per day.
This level of optimization is crucial to the sustainable operation of our treatment plant. We know we have the capacity to handle more pollutants and waste materials than ever before, which minimizes risks to the environment.
By combining digital technology with energy efficient equipment, we’ve also reduced energy consumption by 10%-15%.
As a result, our Wujiacun facility has become a benchmark for low-carbon treatment plants, and we plan on adopting similar approaches at our Fatou and Jiuxianqiao plants in the coming years.
Shuping Lu: What’s next for BDG in terms of advancing carbon neutrality goals through digital?
Yongtao Ge: BDG was the first utility in China to commit to ambitious carbon neutrality goals. Our roadmap consists of three parts – reducing carbon emissions by 20% by 2025, reducing carbon intensity and carbon emissions by 40% by 2035, and achieving total carbon neutrality by 2050. We’re on track to reach our 2025 goal this year – one whole year ahead of schedule.
We’re also building China's first ever carbon neutral standard water reclamation plant. When it’s completed, it will be the world's largest treatment plant of its type, with a capacity to process up to 200,000 tons per day. For us, every lever we can pull to reduce our carbon emissions – no matter how big or small – paves the way for others to follow suit.