It’s Time for the Smart Water Grid
It’s been a great year for the Smart Grid. Entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, analysts, journalists, and regulators can’t stop talking about it. Experts are competing to project greater market potential. Zpryme puts the Smart Appliance market alone at $15.2bn by 2015, Lux Research talks about $15.8bn, Cisco estimates the overall opportunity at $100bn and Pike research uses a whopping $200bn figure.
Giants like Cisco and IBM have set aside billions to fund Smart Grid activities. The US government has kept up, allocating hefty tax credits and incentives for Smart Grid development, with $3.4bn from the stimulus bill granted to 100 smart-grid initiatives last October. VCs are investing heavily, as these three lists show. But while we anticipate the first Smart Grid IPO (market-permitting) from Silver Spring Networks, we’ve got to wonder out loud: Why isn’t water being served at this party?
Urban water distribution systems are not exactly ‘grids’. A lot of energy (and money) is invested in water production, treatment, distribution and reuse, but current water systems don’t comprehensively measure usage in real-time. Without measurement, there is no data to base grid management upon. The electric Smart Grid leverages the proliferation of measurement points collecting large amounts of (largely untapped) data, but this is not the case in water networks.
Nevertheless, even sparse data can take a utility a long way, without consumer-side measurement. Analysis is the real enabler of the Smart Grid, and if you are able to collect the data, clean it and then crunch it in a meaningful way, you can manage your network more effectively, the way it’s done in IT or Telecom networks. The result may be higher efficiency in water use, optimized energy expenditure and obviously consumer-side savings.
What exactly does a Smart Water Grid do? Take a look at the definition of the Smart Grid, and now consider the following moderate adaptation to the water space:
A Smart Water Grid delivers water from suppliers to consumers using two-way digital technology to control consumption at consumers’ homes to save water, reduce cost and increase reliability and transparency. It overlays the water distribution system with an information and net metering system.
A Smart Water Grid includes an intelligent monitoring system that keeps track of all water flowing in the system. It also incorporates the use of monitored water mains for less water loss, as well as the capability of integrating renewable water. When water is least expensive the user can allow to the Smart Water Grid to turn on selected water-consuming appliances such as sprinklers or water boilers that can run at arbitrary hours.
While parts of this vision are still a few good years away, the data revolution in the water space has already begun. In fact, analyzing available flow and pressure data to determine anomalies in real-time or scheduling pumps and valves according to energy consumption peaks and lows is already part of the Smart Water definition today. There’s no shortage of data in distribution networks, even if we’ve yet to see universal adoption of Automated Meter Reading and online transmitting meters. At TaKaDu, for example, we have been working with water utilities to introduce network intelligence into their distribution systems by applying advanced algorithms to pre-existing data — which is a huge leap en route to gaining full control over the system. Other companies, like i2o, AUG signals and more, are deploying smart sensors into the network. These are all building blocks of the Smart Water Grid.
Industry giants such as Siemens, IBM and Oracle have also been talking about a smarter way to manage water networks, and have even used the explicit ‘grid’ terminology in their recent announcements about plunging into Smart Water. But the billions being poured into the smart electrical grid market through government initiatives, venture capital investments and corporate allocations have missed, at least thus far, the Smart Water Grid. Yes, VCs are investing in water technologies, but the lion’s share is going into capital-intensive processes for desalination, treatment, reuse etc. To catalyze a new wave of investment, many VCs would like to find more “capital efficient” ventures (one of the buzzwords du jour in that community).
However, we’re seeing signs of a change. Experts and analysts are talking about the intersection of Water and IT. Some VCs, our own investors included, have singled out Smart Water as an area of focus. Innovative water utilities are also starting to talk about the Smart Water network, and water technology companies are developing solutions to meet their needs.
Sure, it will be a while before each tap and sprinkler is smart and connected. To make the water complex a true ‘grid’ would require massive deployment of remotely accessible and always-on consumer metering, which will take quite a few years. The Smart Water revolution is starting with smarter distribution, improved water infrastructure monitoring, and intelligent asset management. But just like water, innovation and capital are flowing along the distribution network, and will eventually make their way to a faucet near you.
Originally published June 2nd, 2010 in the BlueTech Blog