It’s policy making sleight of hand to claim that the cost of preventing spills in UK rivers is more than £1,000 per household per year. What a scary number? What a false argument? There are clear steps now that the water industry can take to reduce its impact on our waters, and it starts out at 1p per person per year.
The first step is to make the most of the monitoring infrastructure on the network. In just 16 weeks, every measuring point in the UK could be connected to an Artificial Intelligence (AI) system that finds 9 in 10 blockages which cause the most polluting spills and has real-time reporting of performance and data quality. This could help water companies target the most polluting assets and give them time to fix the problems before any major polluting incidents. Once set up, the ongoing cost of the AI is 1p per person per year and some water companies are already making this happen on thousands of CSOs and manholes.
While monitoring AI will help prevent the worst incidents and help target offenders for a fix, it won’t give the step change in the volume of wastewater flushed into rivers and lakes in high rain. That comes next.
The second step is to optimise the latent storage capacity in the sewer network – the actual volume in the pipes and the sewers. Valves and pumps are remotely controlled as a system to manage the flow through the network. OFWAT recently funded an innovation proposal for this type of approach in the UK. Since 2016 Germany introduced this prototype and it works. Models predict the inflow into the sewer based on the forecast rain. Advanced control routines investigate the future and run scenarios with multiple layers of potential failure and can either autonomously control or recommend what a human operator should do. The impact: an 85% decrease in the volume of wastewater released in light rain and a 10% reduction in heavy rain.
If this is to work in the UK the quality of our automation infrastructure will need to step up. But the cost is an order of magnitude less than digging up the pipes.
Once you have advanced control algorithms reducing the volume released and AI finding the issues that cause your biggest pollution problems, you will also know where your problems are. With our ever-increasing knowledge of nature-based solutions these can be used to give the win-win of reducing pollution impact and risk, while improving the overall environment of the catchment.
Then is the time to look at replacement, not the whole network, but where the limited funds will have the greatest impact on the environment and the least impact on customers’ bills.
Water Innovation 2050, the water industry’s vision for the sector, had some fantastic ideas. But solving its problems is not just about developing new solutions but about using the innovations that already exists. Today’s barriers are how water companies should focus and deliver a digital transformation of their sewer monitoring systems.
We need to accept this is an old Victorian system. If we were starting again, we would do things differently. But we should also accept that we are not powerless, and the tools are available now to deliver a step change from where we are today.