Smart Grid Lessons for Illinois Water Utilities
Here in Illinois, the name Exelon is often associated with our electric utility ComEd, which provides service to 4.2 million customers across the northern part of the state. ComEd was one of the early leaders of the ‘smart grid’ revolution that helped digitize and modernize utility infrastructure. By connecting “smart” sensors to buried, underground utility assets and applying analytics and utility operations expertise, ComEd’s smart grid initiative led to unprecedented levels of reliability, resilience, and customer satisfaction.
There are many analogies and lessons from the electric smart grid journey that can be applied to help our public water utilities here in Illinois. Before smart grid, electric utilities were reactive – they didn’t know when there were outages until customers called them in and they didn’t know where or why they occurred until after-the-fact. Similarly, today residents alert the water utility to inform them of a leak and even the best-run water utilities don’t know when leaks begin or why. These lessons are needed now, more than ever due to the increasing age and vulnerability of the water infrastructure that runs under our cities. Each year there are more than 240,000 main breaks across the country and the frequency is increasing. According to a study by Utah State University, main breaks have increased 27% in the last six years due to pipes outlasting their intended lifespan. These leaks lead to 2.1 trillion gallons of water lost, costing our cities $2 billion.
Smart technologies enable data-driven decision making
Today, “smart grid” technologies exist that give municipalities unprecedented visibility into their systems to prevent main breaks and reduce water loss. By connecting smart sensors that measure flow and pressure with existing SCADA data and machine learning analytics software, utilities can now achieve continuous system condition assessment. These technologies learn from historic patterns to develop a prediction of what flow and pressure should be which, when compared to real time data, can show when leaks occur. And since most leaks don’t surface, small leaks can run for months or years undetected costing thousands and thousands of dollars. Small leaks also lead to large, disruptive and costly main breaks so catching them while they’re small can prevent unnecessary safety risk, traffic disruptions, negative headlines, and boil orders. Gaining this new insight enables utility staff to reduce their non-revenue water (NRW), shift repair work from overtime to planned work, and achieve sustainability goals by using less water and reducing electric use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Unfortunately, technology alone is not the answer
The solutions described above are in practice in larger water utilities all around the world but are not widely deployed in the U.S. There are many factors that account for this including the lack of human, financial and operational resources that are needed to take advantage of the technologies. Selecting and procuring hardware, configuring and integrating software and ensuring end-to-end cybersecurity across networks takes time and expertise. And, most importantly, monitoring the data and making use of the analytics requires trained staff. Big data without the right people can lead to big headaches.
New shared services models
But new shared services business models are emerging that make these technologies accessible and affordable to municipalities of all sizes across Illinois. One example is Aquify, which leverages Exelon’s resources to deliver a comprehensive water monitoring and analytics service. The Aquify service include sensors, AI software, a cybersecure network and a professionally staffed control room that provides 24/7 monitoring and analytics support. And, because Aquify is a turnkey professional service there is no capital, added staff or IT infrastructure required. If you’re interested in learning more, contact Carlo Cavallaro at Carlo.Cavallaro@exeloncorp.com or visit www.ExelonAquify.com.