This content was originally published by Journal AWWA and can be accessed here.
For decades, policymakers, utilities, and concerned stakeholders have worked to conserve electricity by using sophisticated demand management tools that help customers understand the relationship between peak use periods and real costs. These measures help educate customers on ways to reduce energy usage—and their bills—while ensuring the grid’s integrity and stability.
Curiously, this same approach hasn’t been systemically applied to water. With energy management programs having successfully demonstrated proof of concept in reducing electricity consumption, a growing number of utilities and partners are deploying resources to do the same for water conservation.
Megadrought in the Southwest
According to Statista, the average combined water and sewer bill in the United States increased almost 150% to US$100 per month between 2001 and 2018 (https://bit.ly/ 3t8E0WP). In most cases, consumers have no idea how much water they use or how much it’s going to cost until the end of the month. When it comes to water, you can’t manage what you don’t measure, and drought-intensive summers are becoming more and more common. Consequently, the urgency to apply the same principles to measuring energy usage to water in real time is greater than ever.
Consider the case of the Colorado River basin in North America. Occupying approximately 250,000 square miles and stretching 1,400 miles long, the Colorado River is a critical municipal water resource for nearly 40 million people in seven southwestern states and Mexico. Growing demands in the Colorado River system, coupled with the potential for reduced supplies because of climate change, is putting water users and resources relying on the Colorado River at risk of prolonged water shortages, now and in the future. Even a single season of drought is bad news for the Southwest, and the effect extends beyond residents, with dry conditions in the area affecting food supplies by shriveling crops and harming livestock as well as worsening wildfires that result in continentwide swaths of air pollution.
As of late June 2021, U.S. Drought Monitor (https://bit.ly/3kLh0t8) reported that 97% of the western United States—including California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Montana—were experiencing abnormally dry conditions, with 27% of the region experiencing extreme drought. Much of this area is considered to be in a “megadrought,” which is a period of drought that lasts for decades. The state of Colorado, where much of the original precipitation falls as snow, reported that greater than 42% of the state was abnormally dry, 36% was experiencing moderate drought, 31% was experiencing severe drought, and 18% was experiencing extreme drought conditions.
When it comes to electricity, we’ve made significant strides in recent years in terms of planning, implementing, and monitoring demand management programs that encourage consumers to modify their level and pattern of usage. However, the same can’t be said for our water conservation efforts.
How can the water industry apply lessons learned from tried-and-true energy conservation plans to water usage, helping consumers to be more informed, and enabling utilities to better manage their precious water resources? One answer lies in the application of wireless energy monitoring tools.
How can the water industry apply lessons learned from tried-and-true energy conservation plans to water usage?
One Community’s “Smart” Approach to Water Conservation
More than just a collection of homes, Sterling Ranch is a resource-conscious, smart community dedicated to sustainability located 20 miles south of Denver. The community has established a water resource management program to provide real-time usage data to residents in every new home that’s built. The project also includes real-time notifications, personalized goal-setting options, and insights to homeowners to alert them to abnormal water usage. Additionally, the water rates are different for indoor and outdoor consumption to encourage conservation while providing customers with the option to use water for important applications.
The smart water management market will continue to grow and deliver value to resource-conscious communities.
When Sterling Ranch was created, its founders knew they would have to bring water to the community, as it wasn’t yet available in the area. More importantly, they would have to create intelligent community and home water usage practices to keep costs down while conserving this highly constrained resource for future generations. Measuring water usage is particularly important because of the known potential for drought conditions in Sterling Ranch’s microclimate.
“We understand that environmental conservation and sustainability are crucial for future generations to enjoy the same stunning natural scenery and quality of life that residents of our community do today,” said Brock Smethills, president of the Sterling Ranch Development Company. “That’s why we’re leveraging tech solutions that align well with our core mission around environmental stewardship, specifically water sustainability. This unique platform, which isn’t yet available anywhere else in the country, enables us to engage targeted users in real-time water demand management, with the ability to measure the impact at the meter, elevating our water resource management to the next level.”
Residential is one of the fastest-growing segments of the smart water management industry, which analysts predict will become a $21.4 billion market by 2024 (https://bit.ly/3jv03E2). In recent years, several favorable factors have aligned to expand the market, including utility-funded tech accelerators and supportive utility partners that have increasingly applied advanced technology for pilot projects. And with the adoption of Internet of Things solutions across industries, the demand from communities like Sterling Ranch to implement meaningful water conservation programs will continue to advance.
Sterling Ranch’s technology provider, Siemens, deployed intelligent infrastructure, smart irrigation controllers, and video security solutions, and the team partnered with Copper Labs to develop a cost-effective way to deliver real-time electric, gas, and water meter data to the community’s residents. Every home in Sterling Ranch comes equipped with state-of-the-art technology to monitor energy and water usage, giving residents real-time data that allow them to easily conserve water and energy. Sterling Ranch is the first community in Colorado to use a dual-water meter system within the home, which accounts separately for outdoor and indoor usage, allowing residents to adjust their habits and helping them conserve water and save money.
Producing and delivering safe water can require a lot of energy. As communities adjust to the ongoing impacts of aging systems, fewer resources, and climate change, forward-thinking communities like Sterling Ranch are leveraging behavioral demand response and real-time insights to curtail their water usage. As the results of these projects become more widely available, the smart water management market will continue to grow and deliver value to resource-conscious communities.