Water utilities around Australia face similar challenges – population growth, more frequent weather events, drought and climate change means there’s more pressure on our water storages than ever before. But the industry focus remains the same, utilities are committed to providing the community with safe water now and into the future, while dealing with these challenges, managing water quality and water availability and keeping costs down. With these same goals, it’s critical that utilities around the country collaborate with each other as well as with different sectors and educational institutions, to share insights and solutions.

Lara Olsen, Managing Director of South East Water, believes the water industry is the most collaborative sector in the country, especially compared to other industries she’s worked in, such as energy.

“We have the same goals, so the only way you really achieve them is when you work at scale and go with the best ideas rather than trying to do everything in your own organisation,” she said.

In addition to providing water, sewerage and recycled water services to 1.91 million people across Melbourne per year, South East Water is focused on developing new technologies to solve some of these water challenges, which are then tested in their network.

For instance, it’s recently achieved this with Sotto and Lentic, two technologies that its engineers conceived, developed and manufactured for market. Embedded within digital meters, these technologies help locate leaks early before they impact the community, helping save water and additional water usage charges.

Ms Olsen said sharing these insights and collaborating with other organisations has been a key part of these projects having the biggest impact in the sector as possible.

“If you’re just looking to solve a problem for your particular situation then you miss some of the best ideas and the chance for it to have a much greater impact than it otherwise could, and I think that comes from collaboration right from the start,” Ms Olsen said.

“The more voices you have around the table, asking questions and suggesting ideas, the better the technology or solution that you will get. That includes customers as well.”

Approaching collaboration with stakeholders

It can be hard to know what the best approach is when it comes to collaboration; who to partner with and why, what people, projects and
technologies should be involved, and what are the best outcomes. Ms Olsen said the approach can be different based on what you’re trying to achieve.

“There’s certainly some projects which we’ve initiated and led, and then other projects where we are a project partner, learning from others
and looking to see what they’re doing. I think that’s an important characteristic – there is not just one set organisation that looks to lead, it’s a sharing of that role as well.”

One example of this is South East Water’s Biosolids to Biochar project, a partnership with RMIT University, Intelligent Water Networks and Greater Western Water. RMIT was developing a technology to transform biosolids – a waste product from sewage treatment – into something beneficial for the agriculture industry such as soil fertiliser.

“This was a project that focuses on what we could do with those biosolids and how we make the treatment of them more energy efficient.

How do we keep the great parts of the biosolids in terms of nutrients but remove the contaminants, and come up with a solution that not only works for us, but also for the broader water industry.

“It’s been a great example of working with universities in terms of the expertise that they bring, working with our research and development
team and industry partners in determining how technology works in practice at the treatment plant, and confirming what is then needed to take the technology to the next stage,” Ms Olsen said.

The Biosolids to Biochar project is now at the demonstration plant stage with a trial at the Greater Western Water Melton recycled water plant recently finishing, and plans to expand further, as it can be implemented in small and large plants, both locally and overseas.

The project also won the R&D Excellence Award at the Australian Water Association’s Victorian (VIC) Water Awards in March 2022. This drive to develop proven solutions for common industry challenges also extends to housing developments and how these are built in the future to minimise water and energy use. The construction industry can be a great source of collaboration to create solutions that improve communities and the way they function.

The Aquarevo project, a collaboration with South East Water, Villawood Properties and Melbourne University, is a community in south-eastern Melbourne built with three sources of water; drinking, recycled, and rainwater. Homes are integrated with technologies ranging from a rain-to hot-water system, through to remote pressure sewer monitoring, and intelligent rainwater tanks.

“By using the rainwater tanks and the hot water systems, on average, homes have been able to save about 45 per cent of their drinking water.

We’ve been working with Melbourne University and La Trobe University to trial a range of different technologies around smart tanks as well,” Ms Olsen said.

Solutions for future industry challenges

While it’s great to be able to get different internal teams involved and working with other utilities and organisations on innovative projects,
Ms Olsen said the main benefit of collaboration is the difference these projects will have for future generations.

“Often when people think of a water utility, they think about turning on the tap, but for us, we’re trying to think about our role in helping communities be the best they can be and protecting our environment,” Ms Olsen said.

“It’s not just about what comes out of the tap, sometimes it’s about working with energy companies, universities, other water corporations and building developers. This is what we need to be thinking about now if we are going to enhance what our environment or community looks like in ten or 20 years.

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