by Adam Lovell, Executive Director, WSAA

An online survey and in−depth interviews conducted with urban water businesses in Australia and New Zealand has shown 80 per cent of respondents are actively pursuing smart metering or intelligent water networks.

Momentum for these projects continues to grow, as businesses pursue pilot and operational projects.

It is clear that urban water businesses are recognising the role digital water-metering technology can play in efficiency, demand management and customer service.

In line with the vision set by WSAA members, ‘customer driven, enriching life’, it is also important that the end user – the customer – understands the benefit of the technology.

The research shows that many utilities are now seeing how digital metering and use of near real-time data can benefit customer service.

The survey, conducted by the Smart Water Research Centre on behalf of WSAA, provides a deeper understanding of the state of smart metering and intelligent water networks (SM/IWN) in Australian and New Zealand urban water utilities. Building on the baseline data gathered in 2013, this study looked at gauging the penetration of smart metering and intelligent water network projects to identify challenges and emerging trends. Key insights were:

Smart meter and intelligent water projects continue to grow 

80 per cent of respondents were actively pursuing smart metering or intelligent water network projects, with 66 per cent having projects underway or starting in the next 12 months, demonstrating that the momentum for SM/IWN projects in Australasia continues to grow.

Extending asset life and deferring investment is the key business case driver 

Improving infrastructure planning and deferring infrastructure augmentation by extending the life of assets through better peak demand management was the single most frequently cited business case driver for the deployment of smart metering technology.

Improved accuracy in meter reading the ‘surprise’ benefit 

For the utilities who had progressed to operational rollout, the theoretical business case benefit that was being met or exceeded most often in practice was improved meter reading accuracy.

Uncertainty around communications selection

Many utilities are trialling a number of communication systems, suggesting this important choice is seen as having a level of uncertainty. Two-way communications are emerging as the most popular (51 per cent).

Smart meters a growing component of intelligent water networks

In the last 12 months there has been a doubling in the number of utilities that are pursuing IWN – integrating of intelligent devices including water meters, pressure sensors, meter data, into all relevant business processes and systems and using this information to guide strategy and investment.

Digital water knowledge systems: for customer choice and utility efficiency

There was an evolution by many utilities in conceptualising the utility-wide application and benefits that can be achieved from pursuing digital metering technology. There is evidence that utilities in 2014 have an increased awareness of how digital metering and applying analytics of various datasets in near real-time can benefit utility efficiency and customer service excellence. Aligned with data analytics was a clear shift towards the customer satisfaction (e.g. greater focus on web portals, leak alerts, two-way communications and customer consultation).

A need for better integration with communication systems and the IWN concept

There was consistent mention of technological difficulties concerning incompatibilities with the meter, data storage and communication systems. This area may be surpassed by the emerging ‘internet of things’ protocols, and highlights a need for deeper vendor and utility discussions.

Customer needs usually not valued in the business case

Of the utilities operating smart meters, the most successful business case benefit being achieved, or on track to being achieved, was “customer engagement and timely signals to customers, e.g. leaks”. This insight is typically gained after installation and often doesn’t form a tangible input into the business case. It highlights a disconnect between the business case logic, where customer benefits prove elusive to include and value financially.

Two-paced momentum and knowledge in industry

Some utilities had well-advanced trials or operational rollouts, together with a similarly advanced understanding of the wider benefits of SM and IWN, while others were constrained by a lack of overall understanding and awareness of developing a business case, technology options, applications of data and the wider benefits of smart metering.

Theoretical business case benefits being achieved operationally

Water businesses that are rolling out large-scale smart metering projects, and that were interviewed in depth last year (e.g. Mackay Regional Council and TasWater), remained largely on track with their business case driver outcomes and reported ongoing water demand reductions (e.g. greater than 10 per cent reduction in residential demand), long-term CAPEX savings (e.g. deferring augmentation of networks and associated capital expenditure net present value savings) and excellent customer service improvements (e.g. significant reductions in customer complaints).

The survey shows that while the number of utilities that are pursuing intelligent water networks has doubled in the last 12 months, challenges still exist in transferring the recognition of the new technology into solid businesses cases. WSAA will continue to work with the urban water industry in understanding the challenges for the implementation of intelligent water networks and smart metering. 

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