Ripple Effect: How utilities in Europe are putting data to work to unlock the digital potential

Ripple Effect: How utilities in Europe are putting data to work to unlock the digital potential

This past summer, severe droughts to flash floods devastated communities across Europe, laying bare the vulnerabilities of our water systems. With future projections just as stark, the need to modernize critical infrastructure has never been higher on the agenda – particularly as issues with accessibility and affordability prevail.

In Europe, utilities are meeting these challenges head-on by harnessing the power and potential of digital solutions. Here, Roxana Marin, Xylem’s Vice President of Central and Northern Europe, sits down with Making Waves to discuss some of the trends being set by the pacesetters and outlines why digital is fast becoming an operational imperative to build resilience.

Extreme weather events wreaked havoc across Europe this past year. What impact has climate change had on water systems, and how can communities build resilience?

Water has always been a precious commodity, but the scale and spread of the challenges faced by the industry have never been greater. Communities in Europe were devastated by flash floods and extreme droughts throughout 2023, putting the strength of our water systems to the test. Those impacts, coupled with the fact that aging legacy water systems lose more than 30% of the water they should deliver, are cause for concern.

Climate change will continue to exacerbate water stress worldwide. We must modernize our water systems to make our communities more resilient to external shocks. This means using digital technologies to optimize water management and improve performance.

Digital solutions allow utility operators to bridge the information gaps within their water systems and invest capital in the right places. The reality is that digital is no longer an option, but an operational imperative.

Many European utilities have been at the forefront of innovation. Can you tell us about those that are leading the charge when it comes to unlocking the power of digital?

From our work with utility customers across the continent, we find that success comes with breaking down barriers and integrating information to really empower utility operators. If you put people at the heart of your digital strategy, you can achieve something significant.

For example, my colleagues in France have been working closely with Syndicat d’eau de l’Anjou (SEA), a regional drinking water wholesaler serving 153,000 people across 65 municipalities. The utility’s philosophy has always been to use data and analytics to help people do their best work, delivering more value to the community in the process.

In practice, this meant bringing together data from several platforms – including SCADA, GIS, and customer information systems – and real-time monitoring instruments to quickly give operators the information they need, when and where they need it. This means more time in the field, reducing the distance between them and their customers.

Data plays a huge role in unlocking the true potential of digital. To help our clients overcome the often dreaded “data deluge”, we recently partnered with Idrica, a leader in water data management and analytics, to create Xylem Vue powered by GoAigua.

As an integrated software and analytics platform that combines data from any source, this solution provides water operators with a real-time view of their processes and infrastructure. As utilities plot their digital transformation, this platform will help them move faster and maximize their digital investments.

When it comes to implementing a successful digital transformation strategy, many utilities don’t know where to start or how to scale. What can we learn from those who are setting the pace?

There are thousands of water, wastewater, and stormwater utilities around the world. Each one is at a different stage of digital maturity, working to solve unique community level challenges. As such, there is no prescribed digital journey, which makes it hard to know what route to take. There simply is no one size fits all approach.

In our recent paper that we developed in collaboration with Bluefield Research, Ripple Effect: A Movement Towards Digital Transformation, we sought perspectives from global water utility leaders and experts to provide insight on the realities of “going digital.” Though the group consulted span the scope of utility sizes and resources, each one expressed the need to adopt a thoughtful, systemic approach and build incrementally over time.

Take Waterschap Aa en Maas, a large utility responsible for sustainably purifying 300 million liters of wastewater for more than 778,000 residents and businesses in the province of Brabant, Netherlands. Having prioritized investments in technology since the 1970s, the utility is now more than 50 years into its digital transformation journey.

It continues to explore and implement new technologies at every turn, iterating towards more sophisticated systems as it goes. This approach has allowed Waterschap Aa en Maas to keep moving and keep innovating at a sustainable pace, while also ensuring that investments align with its strategic priorities and goals.

The water sector is working to advance the collective race to net zero. How can digital transformation support successful decarbonization strategies?

Digital transformation can deliver efficiency and optimization gains that move the dial. This is vital as the water industry addresses its greatest challenge – delivering resilient services while reducing emissions.

Utilities will also have to deal with more regulations focused on reducing emissions. If we think ahead to five years, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are likely to be measured as a standard part of operational key performance indicators.

There is a clear link between decarbonization and operational efficiency, which is where innovative technology can make a real difference. For some utilities, the focus might be on using digital technology to reduce energy consumption. For others, it could be deploying innovative solutions to make assets more efficient and avoid the large carbon-intensive capital projects that historically would have been the principal way to solve a problem.

Stadtwerke Trier (SWT), a utility based in the Rhineland-Pfalz region of Germany, is a good example of what this might look like in action. Through ongoing investments in advanced process optimization tools and the adoption of renewable energy sources, the utility has realized substantial energy savings in wastewater treatment and drinking water distribution. Today, about 90% of the drinking water demand across the region is covered by renewable sources.

It really is incredible what can be achieved by unlocking the power of digital. Every step on the digital journey brings the industry closer to achieving a common goal of building a more resilient, sustainable, and equitable water future for all.