When they were plain, old wastewater treatment plants, just about everyone would have described them as “conservative,” “low-profile,” or maybe even “boring.” Today’s clean water utilities are anything but.
In 2013, NACWA, WEF, and WERF took a look at this remarkable transformation and coined the term, Utility of the Future, or more simply, UOTF, to describe how today’s clean water utilities see themselves and behave: not as managers of waste reminiscent of the past, but as managers of valuable resources like water, nutrients, and energy. UOTF’s still do what they used to in the sense that these institutions operate much the same machinery, meet the same federal and state requirements, and remain just as vigilant in protecting public health and the environment as always — more so in fact, every day.
Recent changes in the industry represent a fundamental shift away from simply performing these baseline functions, the third inflection point so to speak in the evolution of modern sanitation in the U.S., after first we decided to clean our cities through collection, and second, we decided to clean our waterways via treatment. In most places today, we cannot squeeze out more water quality at clean water utilities without spending unmanageable sums per pound removed, especially compared to water quality gains we could deliver by controlling other sources at prices that are orders of magnitude lower. Out of this over-constrained situation emerge UOTFs, which represent the third wave: do more with less by managing assets that others want like water; creating power for yourself and the grid from energy-rich biosolids; or working with your community to create livable, flood-free urban spaces with green infrastructure. Utilities win by generating revenue and reducing costs; the environment wins with cleaner water, fewer carbon emissions, and healthier airsheds; and people win through technology-forward jobs and more enjoyable lifestyles.
NACWA, WEF, WERF and WateReuse are poised to release the 2015 Annual Report of the Utility of the Future, a joint effort intended to further define just what the third transformation within our industry will look like. The Report makes a key point – clean water utilities do not make these sorts of transitions alone. The clean water industry is coalescing to form what is best described as an “innovation ecosystem.” With UOTFs at the center, the combined contributions of technology developers, design engineers, management consultants, the finance community, regulators, professional associations, and governing boards produce a whole greater than the sum of their parts. Together, these enterprises create an environment of innovation that enables UOTFs to capitalize on the combined contributions of all these players, creating classic systems benefits while also creating network benefits by sharing knowledge and experience among themselves.
These systems and network benefits create a virtuous cycle: innovation leads to success; success breeds more adoption; adoption creates demand; demand stimulates more innovation; and the cycle continues — as long as UOTFs continue to lead by taking risks, collaborating with their innovation partners, and creating demand to drive the cycle. According to the 2015 Annual Report, momentum is building. There’s something happening here and it is profound.
For the last 35 years, Ken Rubin, Managing Director of Rubin Mallows Worldwide, has provided engineering, economic, financial, and management consulting services to public and private clients worldwide. He consults regularly on matters of infrastructure, real estate, and industrial strategy, management, and operations. His domestic clients include public and private utilities, private equity firms, state and local governments, and public interest groups. Dr. Rubin is widely recognized as one of the leading experts on water sector policy, economics, finance, markets, management, and operations. He consults regularly to the industry on matters of national policy, market dynamics, and finance.