CEO Insights 2019: Francois Gouws, TRILITY Group
What are the three biggest challenges facing your industry in 2019?
Australia’s population is growing and so is the economy, while climatic conditions are becoming more variable. In order to sustain this current growth trajectory, Australia cannot rely on rainfall as its primary source of water to meet present and future demands. Australia’s future prosperity is therefore inextricably tied to how well we plan and manage our vital water resources. As a consequence, the water industry is tasked with the challenge to find and implement alternative climate-resilient sources and practices. The next challenge is having these alternate sources accepted by users. There is no single magical solution, it will invariably involve many integrated approaches, including re-use for potable water. Ultimately, this is a challenge for all Australians, not only the water industry.
Following on from this is the cost of water services. As mentioned above, climate change is forcing us away from traditional surface water sources and most of our water, wastewater and stormwater assets are ageing. Climate change and increased demand factors were never conceived at the time of the assets’ original design. Therefore, they need to be adapted, renewed and/or supplemented, which inevitably increases costs. Consequently, the overall challenge is one of who pays for climate change and what the real cost will be.
Another challenge is around our people as we face an industry-based ageing workforce. Through representative associations such as the Australian Water Association, the water industry has very successfully implemented programs to attract graduates. However, the water industry employs thousands of highly skilled vocationally trained professionals and this is where we face a true challenge — the workforce is ageing with not enough trainees to meet the future skills demand.
How is your industry preparing for technology developments such as artificial intelligence (AI)?
I believe the water industry has been bold in recognising and embracing digital technology as an essential tool for the future. Most utilities and service providers have and are implementing digital strategies, and this trend is to continue. The full potential of connectivity, technology and software are yet to be realised, yet still it is so incredibly exciting to see these starting to realise value — which will inevitably result in accelerated development and adoption. Concepts such as predictive analytics are now widely used to accurately predict failures of costly infrastructure resulting in major cost savings and reduced service interruptions. For example, most water infrastructure assets are underground and in prior years huge sections would be replaced on a rolling basis. Whereas today, only specific high risk sections need to be replaced, due to more accurate predictions.
Another incredibly exciting application is the creation of a digital twin, whereby a process or system is digitally simulated thereby allowing experimentation, development and optimisation on the digital platform before actual implantation. It provides process controllers and engineers with a tool similar to that of the life-like experiences pilots have when flying an airplane simulator.
What effect is energy policy uncertainty having on your sector?
Energy is typically required to provide water, and water typically to produce energy — treating and transporting water requires energy and most power generation or equipment manufacturing requires water.
Energy policies are undergoing change as we move from traditional lower cost fossil fuel generation methods to emerging and newer renewable methods. The uncertainty created while policymakers try and balance the many stakeholders brings both opportunity and challenge. Water and power policies are typically not linked and I believe this will change as several developments are taking place.
The first is wastewater, this has energy-generating potential through biogas. In my opinion, this will change the way we view wastewater treatment plants given rising power costs. The other is the space/real estate available on reservoirs, lagoons, buildings and land used by the water industry, which is increasingly being used for renewable power generation. Water utilities are thus starting to generate more power, while at the same time water is also increasingly being used to store energy in pumped hydroelectric energy storage (PHES) facilities.
Today, most water utilities are pursuing energy or carbon-neutral targets, as well as having active energy management strategies. I firmly believe, the water industry is embracing opportunity in uncertainty and that future energy and water policies will recognise that water and energy systems are inextricably linked.
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