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Economics of Water Series: Changing landscapes in the global water industry

March 20, 2018

By Arthur Umble

From technology to relationships, water and wastewater utilities are positioned to drive the circular economy

Providing high quality products and services to customers is a core value of any business competing in today’s global marketplaces. This is especially relevant with publicly-owned utilities delivering drinking water and wastewater services. This delivery is often tightly tied to contractual relationships with professionals specializing in the planning, engineering design, and construction (and in some cases, operations) of the environmental systems needed to meet utilities’ obligations.

But the framework for these relationships is changing. Most notably perhaps is the movement within the industry for more consolidation of the professional engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) entities providing these services to utilities. This, in part, is a response to utilities demanding more comprehensive turn-key, or total solutions. Solutions that address not just environmental obligations, but reduce compliance and operational risks, build resilience (adaptation to impacts of climate change), increase energy efficiencies, embrace enterprise opportunities (via resource recovery), and more—all while being more financially viable. 

City of Merced Wastewater Treatment Plant, Merced, California.

As consolidations grow in the industry, EPCs must avoid the trap of delivering services as price-driven commodities merely to generate increasing gross revenues needed to support their growing employee bases. The EPCs must utilize the strength of their consolidated expertise to deliver smarter, sustainable, total solutions through technologies that advance the industry. This is what utilities know they must have to move into the future.

But technology must be disruptive in order to be effective in the water industry. Utilities no longer accept conventions in technology.

But technology must be disruptive in order to be effective in the water industry. Utilities no longer accept conventions in technology. Today, the demand is that the technologies must show dramatic increases in operational efficiencies and performance. This has rapidly advanced the critical link between process technology application and the utilization of “big data.” 

The explosion in the water industry of monitoring and data collection functions through sensor technology, along with tools driven by the “Internet of Things,” have opened the door to sophisticated data analytics applications that is the key to the success of sustainable, utility services. This combination of emerging technology with smart data analytics is the disruption that the industry has been in search of for quite some time—delivering their services at higher quality levels.

Aquatera Wastewater Treatment Plant, Grande Prairie, Alberta.

Utilities large and small are recognizing that they must now leverage this technology boom to engage more fully in the emerging circular economy, particularly applicable to wastewater utilities. For these entities, all opportunities to recover resources from waste streams, and return those resources (water, nutrients, energy, bio-products, etc.) back to their communities for beneficial reuse, generates value to the local economy while offsetting operational and capital costs to the utility.

Because of the advances in sensor-driven “smart” systems, emerging resource recovery technologies are now reaching across scale, where no longer are the benefits realized just in larger utilities. This is perhaps the most exciting aspect of the changing landscape of today’s global water industry, to see water and wastewater utilities sitting in a key role to drive circular economy growth.

  • Arthur Umble

    As the lead for Stantec's Institute for Applied Science, Technology & Policy, Arthur’s position involves developing strategies and providing solutions for complex wastewater treatment challenges.

    Contact Arthur
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