As head of Resources at Accenture in Ireland, Aoife Aherne is acutely aware of the imperative to act on the dual climate and biodiversity crises facing the planet. She sees a critical role for the water sector in enhancing environmental sustainability and contributing to the net-zero agenda.
Over the past 15 years, I have been privileged to work with leading utilities as they transform and innovate to drive shareholder value. The scale of the challenge is now greater than ever, with the planet facing a perilous 1.5ºC temperature increase sooner than expected, according to the recent IPCC Climate Change report1. I’m encouraged and excited by what the next decade will bring and how the utility sector will respond. The water-energy nexus will play a critical role, and the water sector has an opportunity to take a 360-degree approach that will positively contribute to a net-zero future.
The opportunity for the water sector
The role of the energy industry is widely understood; less obvious is the part that the water industry can play. Provision of clean drinking water and wastewater treatment is an energy-intensive business. Nonetheless, the industry can play a significant role in net-zero, the circular economy and biodiversity goals through initiatives that include: energy efficiency and leakage remediation to reduce energy demand; on-site installation of renewable generation to power production (e.g., solar PV, wind, and biogas); where possible aligning plant energy demand to times of peak grid or on-site renewable generation; re-use of sludge waste to fuel wastewater treatment plants with biogas or recovering elements like phosphorous to manufacture semiconductors and lithium batteries; and, finally, the promotion of nature-based solutions and sustainability by design in all infrastructure investments.
I take great inspiration from the Public Utility Board in Singapore2 whose ground-breaking work in water recycling, engagement with their consumers to promote conservation and their use of floating solar PV to supply green energy for their operations shows what can be achieved.
Conformance and performance — innovation required
Transformation is a challenge, made harder for licensed utility companies because they operate in highly regulated sectors. They must balance operational priorities with strategic imperatives like sustainability. Meeting the need for conformance around regulatory standards, while improving performance to deliver on objectives like net zero, requires innovation.
The challenge for water utilities is two-fold: innovating within their own operations using energy-efficient equipment and building more resilient infrastructure, while also innovating to drive customer engagement and adoption — fostering shared responsibility for outcomes. Success will hinge on bringing people on the journey that water and wastewater production is an energy- and resource-intensive process and dispelling the idea that water is a limitless resource. If we all use less, our collective impact goes beyond ensuring we have sufficient water for life and economic development—it also reduces energy usage, which will further our net-zero ambitions and sustain biodiversity and our natural ecosystems.
Harnessing digital and data
Some of this is about digital transformation, embracing a wave of technology that has helped other sectors break down silos and drive a system-led business model. One of the big wins with digitalisation is the opportunity for more advanced data analytics. An obvious use case is to scrutinise KPIs that will measure impact and progress against sustainability and net-zero objectives. For water utilities, in many instances all that’s required is a shift of emphasis; for example, from tracking volumes of leakage or consumption to the impact remediation and conservation efforts have not only on capacity but also on energy usage.
“If we all use less, our collective impact goes beyond ensuring we have sufficient water for life and economic development—it also reduces energy usage, which will further our net-zero ambitions and sustain biodiversity and our natural ecosystems.”
Access to real-time data helps mitigate the operational risks water utilities face. A command-and-control nerve centre, fuelled by insights from operations and external sources, like the met office, enables a predictive and elastic approach to managing operations — supporting a release of resource to drive initiatives on the performance agenda. Data modelling and analytics can be used to better understand weather patterns, monitor biodiversity impact, forecast performance and drive improvement against sustainability KPIs.
With more digital power and greater centralisation of technology comes greater responsibility. Utilities, as custodians of critical national infrastructure, must be mindful of cyber risk exposure. While threats from bad actors interfering with the water supply have so far been considered low, it’s not hard to imagine how increasingly sophisticated cyber criminals might see an opportunity, as they did in the recent colonial pipeline ransomware attack in the US Leading-practice cyber security grounded, for European utilities, by the NIST framework is a key part of the strategy.
A path to shared success
Technology is not a magic fix, and transformation requires people and culture to be sustained. Diversity drives innovation and the adoption of an open innovation approach that draws on the breadth of experience and talent available globally, within start-ups and in academia, is needed to accelerate the sustainability agenda in the sector.
There is also an imperative for water utilities, like every other business, to champion sustainability goals — not least because a new generation of prospective employees will expect to see them. The water sector is brimming with opportunities for people to have careers with a legacy. This plays into the culture part, how an organisation’s collective focus on doing the right thing can have a real impact on their business. In the case of water, there is also a need to extend into the public arena, to educate consumers and bring them on the sustainability journey. The water sector can lead from the front, and I am encouraged by examples such as Water UK’s Public Interest Commitments3, that pledge to champion measures through which water companies can deliver on five challenging goals for social and environmental progress.
Awareness of the climate change crisis has never been greater, and this has encouraged individual responsibility. This is something that water utilities can harness as they engage customers with a vision of shared success. When the sector is more sustainable, when leaks and waste are better managed, it’s good news for consumers and even better news for the planet — the big win for us all and the one that matters most.
Head of Resources at Accenture in Ireland
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