The water industry is currently going through a lot of change, and is faced with some fundamental challenges: ageing infrastructure, population growth, resilience and affordability.
“These are four really big challenges that the industry has to balance, and you’ve got the customers in the middle of it all,” says MWH chief strategy officer David Smith.
In previous asset management periods (AMPs), much of the emphasis has been on building new assets to meet European legislation. But now, the challenge for the water industry is to deliver affordable, resilient infrastructure that will deliver the required service to customers.
Water customers are not really aware of infrastructure; their concern is that they get an affordable, healthy, secure water supply, and that their wastewater is taken away and cleaned up, says Smith. “Infrastructure is only an enabler to that.
“What that means is that we have to have much more of a strategic focus. It is becoming increasingly important to really figure out that we’re doing the right things and coming up with the right answers.” For engineers, that means “think solutions – don’t think projects”.
While designing and building new assets used to be the focus for engineers, that is now the last option in what Smith calls the “totex [total expenditure] hierarchy” that MWH has introduced.
“We have inverted our thinking,” he explains. “It used to be a question of ‘what’s the project we’ve got to build?’ Now we work through the other options first: can we totally eliminate the situation so that we don’t need to do anything?
“If we do need to, can we do something by looking across the whole catchment and working with other stakeholders? Can we do it by getting more out of the existing assets, and through modifications, adaptations or operational solutions? And, if none of those other options are available, the final option is: what do we need to build, and how do we do that safely and efficiently?
“It’s about engineers thinking about the challenges in a different way,” says Smith. “It doesn’t add more time and effort; it’s a mind-set that means they don’t go in with preconceived ideas.”
He believes this change in emphasis creates the opportunity for “true engineering” – engineering in its widest sense, rather than just commodity design.
“There’s been more of a focus on design and build in recent times, but people become engineers because they want to come up with solutions that have the most benefit to society,” he says.
“All engineers like to design, but this idea of thinking more widely excites and motivates them, because they are making a much bigger contribution in society.
“It’s about finding the right solution, rather than a dash for concrete,” Smith adds.
“If you need to build something, then absolutely you find the most effective way to build safely, efficiently and quickly. But the challenge we have now needs much wider thinking and multi-disciplinary engineering.”
But it is not just engineers who must rise to the challenge of thinking in a different way; it is equally relevant to the water companies, regulators, other stakeholders, consultants, contractors and suppliers.
“When the pressures come on, it is very easy to revert to the way it’s been done in the past,” says Smith.
“I see it as a journey, and a big change management issue for the industry as a whole to embrace this different way of thinking.”
The issue of “service resilience” has emerged as an increasingly important driver for utilities, with pressure coming from government and regulators, prompted in part by high profile events like the loss of the Mythe water treatment works during heavy floods in Gloucestershire in 2007, which left 300,000 customers without water for 17 days.
In association with MWH, now part of Stantech
Ofwat has articulated its key resilience principles, but each water company must interpret what resilience means to them and in particular to their customers, says MWH principal consultant Brendan McAndrew.
“We’re seeing different emphasis and different approaches for tackling the issues, depending on each water company’s assessment of where its biggest risks are.”
But according to McAndrew, the processes most water companies rely on for investment planning tend to focus on past asset failures, rather than considering future threats that may not have been apparent before.
“The challenge of resilience is trying to understand potentially low probability high consequence risks,” he explains.
Potential threats to service resilience range from sudden events like flooding, coastal erosion and cyber attack to longer term stresses, like declining raw water quality or a gradual deterioration of asset reliability.
“One of the challenges is the way in which we assess the likelihood of some of these rare but significant threats in order to prioritise and identify which to target,” explains McAndrew.
“There is limited or uncertain data available to drive the assessments. But you need some sort of structured means of putting your identified risks in priority order.
“It is also important to recognise that the service a water company provides is not simply provided by a system of assets, but by the interaction of these assets with customers, catchments and the people, systems and processes that control them.
“Services are potentially only as resilient as the weakest link in that chain,” he says.
“This doesn’t mean a quantum shift away from capital investment. Indeed, some resilience risks may be due to a legacy of past under-investment.
But companies should also be thinking about improved response and recovery plans, or engaging with customers and land owners to reduce pressures on service, as potentially more efficient ways of enhancing resilience.
“The real challenge is to think broadly about threats to service, and develop more integrated solutions that will be the key to efficiently achieving the future levels of service resilience that customers will expect.”
Adaptive catchment thinking
In previous AMPs, the emphasis was on capital projects, recalls MWH technical lead Rob McTaggart.
“We were given a long list of things we had to do, and we just had to check them off the list and we’d delivered,” he says.
“But there was a disconnect between delivering the infrastructure and what was actually happening at catchment level.
“In the ‘outcomes’ world, we have to understand the interdependencies and how we work with others to achieve the outcomes. We can’t just do our bit.”
MWH is developing an integrated water cycle management approach that is rooted in three points: the asset renewal model is no longer sustainable; the flexibility exists to spend money on optimum, evidence-based water cycle (catchment-based) solutions; and co-delivery and partnership working to achieve the required outcomes and solutions.
“It’s all about understanding the whole – how the water system is connected, and how it’s linked to people and partnerships,” explains MWH technical director Evan Dollar.
“If we don’t understand where these interconnections are, we could just be delivering a sticking plaster solution, or pushing the problem further down the line.
“We need to understand the whole built and natural environment in order to get a good understanding of where the most successful intervention solution will be, and what is the optimum basket of solutions and measures to deliver the required outcomes. And to do that, we need to collaborate with multiple stakeholders.”
But the catchment-wide approach is not static, says McTaggart. “This is a dynamic system, and the real step forward is that we now have the technology, regulatory environment and financial models that allow us to plan the system in a more dynamic and responsive way.”
Big data and analytics are an important part of that, aided by the fact that the government had made relevant data open source.
“It means we can take all the operational data and link that to the Environment Agency’s sampling data, rain gauge data or tide data,” explains McTaggart.
“We can process that data to look at something that happened 10 years ago, or something that is happening now. And we can even look forward to what’s going to happen, so the water company can respond before it happens or modify its operational procedures.
“The industry is moving to much quicker and much more adaptive solutions.”
Many of the outcomes and benefits water companies are looking for can be achieved by operational interventions, says MWH process consultant Mohan Gunaratnam.
“We are looking at how they can run their assets and operate and maintain them more effectively, which enables them to be more optimal and balanced in their capital and operational spend,” he says.
“We’re working on projects where, one or two AMPs ago, clients would ask us to look at their site and tell them what to do in terms of capital spend,” he adds.
Men with ops ipad new
“Now they want us to tell them how their site is performing, and what they can do to improve efficiency and performance, as part of the process of establishing their capital investment plans.”
A key element in successful interventions at the operational level is engaging with the staff who run the plants, explains MWH project manager Robin Grenfell.
“We can get an understanding of the site and its complexities, but we also need to get an understanding of the constraints for the operators and where their pressures are,” he says.
“Our teams include people who have operated treatment works in the past, so they talk the same language and understand the operators’ experience.”
Another critical element in successful operational intervention is the appropriate use of data, and MWH has developed technology-based tools to help water companies understand their options. These include dashboards that give insight into how an asset is operating and how it could degrade. “It is really insightful to see things like energy performance and efficiency change over time,” says Grenfell. “It’s not just about collating information.”
One example is the company’s myPlant analytics platform, which shows how a plant is currently performing, but also how it could perform with different interventions. It also benchmarks performance against similar plants to reveal further potential performance improvements.
“It tells you what the savings could be, and is linked to live telemetry, so you can make a change and see the impact of that change,” explains Grenfell.
“It gives them the evidence they need to make their investment a lot more targeted.”