Drivers, Strategy, Technologies and Outcomes: A Q&A with David Mason, Customer Director, Iota, South East Water, Victoria, Australia
Australia’s ‘Millennium drought’ is recognised as the worst on record. In response, South East Water developed and deployed innovative solutions to help its customers and community adapt to a water-stressed environment. It has harnessed IoT and innovative leak detection sensor technology at scale to reduce network and customer water losses:
- An integrated sensor detects network leaks alongside customer side leaks, with tangible results through the deployment of over 100,000 digital meters to date
- The transition to a digital meter network is part of a global shift to accelerated water conservation and drought resilience.
- Managing the network at scale together with innovative technology is key to saving water, reducing economic loss and future proofing network sustainability.
Was the Millennium drought and fear of extreme water shortage the main factor in bringing customers on board?
David: Australia’s ‘Millennium drought’ is recognised as one of the worst on record and in response, South East Water developed and deployed innovative solutions that weren’t available in the market to help it and its customers and community adapt to a water-stressed environment.
In this critical decade for water, South East Water is focussed on ensuring our water security so future generations can enjoy the lifestyle and standard of living we have today. In Melbourne, it is projected that the demand for water will outstrip supply by 2030 if we don’t change the way we manage and consume water. The industry is facing the macro scale challenges of climate change, population growth, ageing assets, rising customer expectations and tougher regulations – and in response, South East Water is deploying digital at scale.
Has the momentum and the cooperation with customers been maintained?
David: All of South East Water’s decision making comes back to providing a positive customer experience and protecting our precious water. Like other utilities, South East Water aims to enhance our customer’s experience by minimising disruptions and increasing transparency through our digital transformation.
Traditionally, utilities prefer to stop at the boundary with the meter. However, now that it’s possible to detect leaks on the customer side in near-real time, it’s important to use this information to support customers to fix these.
South East Water’s digital network includes over 90,000 digital meters which provide near real-time data about water use in both residential and commercial properties. That’s why South East Water developed its automated leak alert program. To date, South East Water has notified over 10,000 customers that they may have a leak, resulting in customer savings of more than $3.2 million and almost 1,000ML saved.
South East Water has also partnered with the University of Melbourne on several in-home water saving trails since 2016 to support customers to be more water efficient and understand how we can encourage long-term behaviour change and reduce the demand on our water storages.
As we look to the future, water utilities need to build resilience into the water network to continue to respond to the challenges of a changing change and growing population. Network digital transformation is the key to achieving this and there is lots of experimentation going on in this space and finding new ways to get it right.
One of South East Water’s long-term customer outcomes is ‘warn me, inform me’ which comes back to engaging with customers about the role of water utilities, and how they can make a difference. The role of the customers can’t be underestimated as we seek to reduce water use through the insights generated by digital. There is a huge opportunity to conserve water, but we also need to build water literacy to take our customers on the journey with us as Melbourne becomes warmer and drier and provide the tools and information customers need to make these changes.
Your presentation title is an interesting one, can you explain a little more about what ‘digital utility at scale’ means and have you applied this concept to other operations within the network?
David: South East Water recognised early on that digital transformation was not just about the technology but also had to include systems, people and processes.
To manage the successful scale roll out of 1 million new digital water meters and deliver on the key benefits from across the organisation, a digital utility group was set up to implement key foundational capability.
This is essentially a matrix-type group that consists of a General Manager reporting directly to the Managing Director/CEO with both dedicated digital utility resources and employees ‘seconded’ into the group from across the business who retain line-of-sight reporting into their functional groups. This facilitates collaboration across the business to drive the required processes and organisational change.
The group is seen as a partner with the rest of the business that leads and facilitates sensor and data based digital transformation across the business. Once DU establishes the program of work and the scale-out is under control, responsibility is handed back to the typical parts of the business such as service delivery and operational technology.
How much has your deployment of smart meters helped to reduce both customer leakage (and customer demand) compared with overall leakage?
David: Savings to date on customer leak side are significant and with only 10% of the network metered to date the opportunity is huge.
With just over 90,000 meters already deployed, leak notifications have been much higher than expected at around 12% which has led to 1,000ML water saved and almost $3.8 million in charges saved as of today.
On the customer demand side, South East Water has completed detailed behavioural research with several universities with some very positive outcomes on how to best use near-real time water usage data available from smart meters to reduce water demand. The challenge here is maintain the customers’ interest in water conservation after an initial spike in interest,
At the same time, South East Water is rolling out its network leak detection vibration sensor which is integrated into each digital meter. Based on initial deployments, this game changing innovation is estimated to save a further 1630ML per year or at least 1% reduction in non-revenue water through early detection and precise location of network leaks.
Other than smart or digital meters what innovative technology would you say has produced the most cost-effective savings?
David: In 2018 when South East Water was considering digital metering, the utility understood the challenges presented by a large-scale shift from analogue to digital, so rather than be satisfied with a general IOT platform, it went about building a water specific Enterprise IOT platform.
The key was to include built-in water meter data validation rules and build a platform that could scale as needed, address key security requirements, and enable easy integration to other enterprise systems as the roll-out of digital meters scaled up.
The platform is now enabling operators to unlock the valuable data from digital meters and generates automated alarms for actionable insights. It is allowing South East Water to easily manage unprecedented volumes of complex data and connecting that with the right teams across the business to enable data driven insights.
All data is validated at the edge before streaming to Enterprise Systems which further enhances access to accurate and better-quality data for analytics and other automated processes like customer leak notifications.
What ‘nugget’ of new information are you hoping that delegates will take away from your Summit presentation?
- It’s important to start with a clear long-term vision across your broader utility and not just focus on digital or smart water meter use case.
- Understand what data/sensors and supporting technologies are needed to enable optimal economies of scale and better investment decisions is key.
- Being clear upfront that people, processes and systems also play a key part of the digital transformation.
- Build a solution that can scale, support automation from the start, and enable other key use cases across the business, eg. non critical sewer blockage monitoring at scale.
- Include dedicated change management effort and resourcing to the many impacted parts of the business to fully realise the benefits from Digital Transformation.
- Take the opportunity to include as much intelligence and sensor capability in your digital meter roll out from the start and then leverage the data (eg. Vibration data) over time.
Why would you say that this conference is important now?
David: From an Australian perspective which I suspect will be common to many other countries:
- Our demand is increasing as we grow in population, but our supply is dependent on rainfall and over the past 30 years this has dropped markedly, as well being more variable due to climate change. The challenge we face is with demand rising and supply dropping. Ordinarily we lose on average about 20% of our storages annually due to demand.
- We have a large desalination plant and we are planning to build another to secure our supply, but that’s not a great outcome for our customers as this has direct and immediate impact on bills.
- The longer we can hold off the augmentation, the better, so we are aggressively seeking demand reduction wherever possible, both reducing customer and network leaks and changing customer behaviour through new NB-IOT based technologies and approaches.
- It is critical to derive a long-term marginal cost of water that includes implied costs of augmentation to assets. Once you have this, it makes programs such as digital metering, which is a critical tool in our water security arsenal, economically viable.