Aussie desalters created Frankenstein’s monster

Published October 13th, 2016

Cg head

Insight from Christopher Gasson, GWI publisher

Utility leaders in Australia have a lot in common with Dr Frankenstein. It is not a comparison I had ever thought of until I visited Brisbane this week for the International Water Association’s World Water Congress and Exhibition. I was supposed to be there to join a panel to discuss the learning points from the Millennium Drought.

The story is very much one of two halves, with learning points for everyone. The problem in the west of the country is climate change. The expansion of the Indian Ocean dipole has pushed historic weather patterns further south, meaning that Perth receives just a fraction of the rainfall it used to. The Water Corporation has planned its resources accordingly, augmenting supply and managing demand to meet the new reality. On the eastern side of the country, global warming has had a much more unpredictable outcome. There have been extremes of droughts and floods, which in turn led to a poisonous political environment for water utilities. A$30 billion was spent on water security during the millennium drought, but the politicians who backed that spending were turned out of office when the rains came. It has been a chastening experience for all utility leaders. Very quickly they realised that the key to their survival was improving the way they communicated with their ratepayers.

That is where Dr Frankenstein comes in. Like the good doctor of Geneva, the most important assets of these Australian water utilities used to be buried beneath the ground. They were unresponsive and lifeless. Then, in a moment of genius, they were reanimated to become living, breathing organisms.

This has been the effect of the efforts of utility leaders in Australia to create greater transparency for their customers. They have introduced smart systems to communicate continuously to their ratepayers, making it possible for each to compare their water usage with their neighbour’s and understand minutely the challenges the utilities face. The impetus to connect with customers has almost by accident created the ability to connect utilities with their assets and their workforces in real time.

It has totally changed the nature of the utility. Utility leaders are no longer some kind of obscure gravediggers who bury lifeless pipes beneath the ground and hope all goes well. Instead, they have created conscious organisms which sense themselves and their surroundings, and respond accordingly. When damaged, they can repair themselves organically, when stressed they can respond by managing the flows within the system, and when new demands are placed on them, they can find the most efficient means of meeting them.

Many of the ideas put into action by the leading utilities in Australia are covered in GWI’s latest report, Water’s Digital Future, but seeing these things in action in Australia makes me feel that this modern Prometheus has much more to offer. Although the need for greater customer engagement was the driver in the Australian market, the big driver for the rest of the world is the falling cost of technology. New long-range, low-power communications networks are dramatically cutting the cost of connecting sensors and controls across a utility network. Within eighteen months, the cost of being part of the Internet of Things will be half what it is today, and Moore’s Law will take it on from there.

It is a revolution, and we will all get to play the part of Dr Frankenstein.