Will the European water sector benefit from the digital revolution?

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The demand for water in the European Union is constantly growing, mainly as a result of immigration policy and continued economic development. As a result, per capita water resources have declined by 24 percent over the past 50 years, and nearly a third of the population has already experienced water supply restrictions. A way out of this stalemate may be digital technologies that will revolutionize the water sector in Europe. However, they involve not only huge opportunities, but also risks.

Digitization of water management

The water sector has already been taking advantage of new digital technologies for a good few years, with Global Water Intelligence estimating potential savings of $176 billion between 2016 and 2020. in the treatment and distribution sphere, and $146 billion. In the sphere of sanitary sewerage. In doing so, cutting-edge digital solutions are being deployed throughout the water management chain – from sourcing resources to serving residential customers and the industrial sector.

The digital revolution has extended its reach to the control of pumps, dams, turbines, sensors, buoys and pipelines. It has thus created opportunities for remote monitoring of parameters such as temperature, pH and nitrogen content at water intake sites. In water enterprises it allows to manage aeration,, mixing or watercourse regulation systems. In turn, at the end of the chain, it facilitates communication with customers and settlements based on readings from water meters.

The water sector today uses the internet, drones, satellites and smart indicators to reduce operating costs and respond more quickly and efficiently to changes, especially crises. However, this is not the end of the digital potential….

How can the water sector take advantage of artificial intelligence?

Machine learning and artificial intelligence are being used today to process huge amounts of data, acquired from both water points and end users. Advanced technology is capable of identifying patterns and flexibly modifying the algorithms used to manage water resources. Combined with the right software, it allows for better strategy planning and optimization of operating costs, as well as minimizing system losses.

It is also worth mentioning, by the way, chatbots serving customers of water and sewage networks, virtual reality to facilitate investment decisions, and the so-called “virtual reality”. digital twins that already allow replicating physical objects (e.g., treatment plants) or processes to better understand the risks of developing a black scenario, such as a failure.

Economic benefits of implementing digital technologies in the water sector

The benefits of using digital technologies in the water sector are multiple and include:

  • Reducing costs and operational risks at water and wastewater companies;
  • Improved return on invested capital through faster and more efficient rehabilitation of damaged infrastructure;
  • Increased profits due to more precise monitoring of water consumption and added value offered to network customers;
  • Process flow improvement and predictive maintenance;
  • Improving working conditions and staff efficiency;
  • Improving the adaptability and capacity to implement innovations in already existing technologies.

Published in 2023, the study by an international team of researchers set out to quantify the economic benefits of digitizing the water sector in its three key components: potable water supply, mixed wastewater systems, and hydroelectric power plants, which already produce 12 percent of the world’s water. Europe’s total energy.

In the water supply network sector, the main problem is losses due to leaks, pipe failures and hydrological equipment. Calculations indicated that implementing digital technologies could reduce them by up to 30 percent. In the context of sewers, however, the researchers focused on the risks associated with overflows and the release of pollutants into the environment. In this case, the benefits of digitization would be primarily related to environmental improvements. Hydroelectric power plants, in turn, could benefit from improved energy efficiency, better management of storage reservoirs and failure prevention.

Total economic gains from the application of digital technologies in the water sector estimated for individual European countries ranged from 0.4 to 1.7 billion euros per year. On a per-citizen basis, they would range from €1.1 per year in Belgium to €59.1 in Sweden. Social and environmental benefits have been omitted from this analysis due to their difficult quantification – but they are substantial.

Challenges of digitizing the water sector in Europe

Unfortunately, the mere existence of digital technologies does not mean that they can be easily used in the water sector. One obstacle to their implementation, for example, is the lack of technology guidance and consistent monitoring standards. The situation is also complicated by the fragmentation of the water sector, which hinders the comprehensive application of digital solutions. Exclusivity agreements often do not allow the use of open-source applications, and many of today’s water and wastewater systems are still not fully compatible with the Internet. Manufacturing sensors on a European scale alone is quite a challenge.

Skeptics also point to a huge information gap regarding the digitization of the water sector and cybersecurity. Neither water and wastewater infrastructure managers nor new technology providers yet fully understand the potential associated with the digitization of this key industry. Digital solutions are also not included in the broader EU water policy – there is a lack of consistent terminology, clear definitions, and compatibility of objectives at different levels of governance. It is hoped that this will be improved by the EU’s Road to the Digital Decade program, which aims to digitize public services by 2030.

How are digital technologies increasing water consumption?

Global digitalization is also having a negative impact on the water sector. How is this possible? From a study published in 2023. in the scientific journal Energy Conversion and Management shows that digital data services in Europe are not only associated with higher energy consumption, but also generate a significant water footprint. Foreign transactions, data warehouses, hosting digital services or calculations for complex models require an ever-increasing supply of digital data. Today we use 86 EBs in Europe – by 2030. demand is expected to reach 225 EB. Thus, per-citizen water consumption associated with digital use could increase from 0.3 to 1.1cubic meters, or nearly four times.

Water consumption in data centers is primarily related to cooling systems and is surprisingly high. One modern center uses as much water as a city of 30,000. citizens. A secondary problem is the water consumption associated with electricity production – in this case, of course, it all depends on the structure of the country’s energy sources. In doing so, the differences are quite significant. In Denmark, producing 1 MWh involves using 0.55m3 of water, while in Norway it takes as much as 15.47m3.

The digitization of the public service zone, including the water sector, therefore requires a broader approach that also takes into account the rather high costs associated with the development of new technologies. And this is where innovation is needed to ensure that the savings achieved in modernized water management do not translate into losses associated with maintaining the technical facilities of digital centers.

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