Environmental management is traditionally considered a cost to doing business. Although many organisations are driven to improve environmental performance, it can be difficult to justify investment for initiatives that have only environmental benefits.
The concept of delivering both environmental and operational benefits is not new. Eco-efficiency, cleaner production and industrial symbiosis have been around for decades as ideas. The key proposition behind these concepts is that you can have your cake and eat it too.
It is possible, with the right idea, to deliver both operational and environmental improvement. Yet, these initiatives often fail to take hold.
The disconnect between environmental and operational benefit
The groups driving environmental improvement and those making operational and strategic decisions for the business tend to be very different. Environmental management has its basis in a fundamental science or engineering, with dedicated subject matter experts leading the understanding of the issue. Measuring, assessing, and describing the significance of any particular issue is complicated.
We are usually trying to represent an environmental system accurately enough to understand whether an activity is causing a problem, or importantly, whether it will cause a problem in the future. Modelling of these systems, whether it be some aspect of the water cycle, air quality, noise, groundwater is critical, but each of these disciplines requires its own specialist expertise. Whether that expertise is internal or external to the organisation, it is fundamentally different to the operational and strategic functions within an organisation that decide how an operation should run.
Communication is the key to driving business wide value
I believe that the critical factor that determines whether an organisation can deliver both environmental and operational performance is one of communication. Historically, the burden has fallen upon the shoulders of key decision makers or environmental decision makers who can sell a concept internally. However, environmental technology now presents an incredible opportunity to bridge the gap between environmental and operational drivers in a business.
When Envirosuite first entered into an agreement with The University of Queensland to commercialise the SeweX modelling product late 2019, we saw enormous potential in making sewer modelling more accessible to water utilities by digitalising and simplifying this process. Our experience with other technologies was that we needed to achieve two objectives during the commercialisation process:
Make the modelled outputs understood quickly and easily by the decision makers in the business.
Assess, translate, and distribute information quickly to the people making operational decisions.
Originally, the focus of commercialisation related to odour and corrosion issues. Historically the model had been applied by academics (the same academics who developed the model) to identify hotspots in the sewer network and assess the costs and benefits of potential control technologies. Although valuable, the information took many months to process and often, the transient issues that were the subject of the investigation had changed or passed. The data had to be interpreted by the people running the model and recorded in a report in a similar way to how most environmental modelling information is presented.
We believed that if we could process this information faster and make it understood by non-subject matter experts across the business, it could have enormous value. For example:
Operational staff could, within hours, understand the root cause of a potential odour issue and take action.
Tactical planning units could quickly assess options for chemical dosing in response to unexpected odour issues.
Potential corrosion issues could be identified before they occur, saving millions of dollars of costly repair work and enormous disruption when assets fail.
These ideas were tested during early consultation with potential customers when fundamental product design decisions were made. The key objectives of the commercialisation process were supported and engaging with water utilities during the design process helped enormously in working out the detail of exactly how this should be done.
Helping customers approach safety and climate change challenges with SeweX
Important additional insights came from this consultation. It was clear that SeweX should deliver this value by using information that is already routinely collected by water utilities unless there is a clear business case for additional monitoring. This was an important factor in developing automatic upload of hydraulic modelling and laboratory analysis of water quality information.
What we didn’t fully appreciate until engaging with our first commercial customers in 2021 was how SeweX could also support organisations in their objectives around safety and climate change. Methane, a key output of SeweX, fills in an important gap in the knowledge of sewer network operators. Safety management related to methane generation is currently focussed on personal monitoring at the point that work is done. SeweX is unique in that it predicts methane generation across the entire network and can deliver valuable understanding of where methane related risks might be occurring. Along similar lines, this can also help deliver understanding on greenhouse gas emissions in a historically underappreciated part of a water utility’s emissions inventory.
We also learnt much more about how different risks related to the sewer network are evaluated and compared, which led to design of outputs that could be more easily communicated and used within a typical risk management framework.
Delivering more certainty to operators for capital expenditure decisions
It has also become apparent that although sewer overflows and optimisation for energy is receiving some attention from water utilities, focus on corrosion, odour and safety related to methane and sulfide generation is still traditionally very much based on costly manual measurement approaches. Subsequently, only a small proportion of the network is assessed each year. Decisions on huge capital budgets are still based on many assumptions and are taken with a huge level of uncertainty. Delivering more certainty into this process can only help drive efficiencies in the master planning process. We look forward to playing our part in that.
SeweX started as a way to fundamentally improve the understanding of corrosion, odour and safety in sewer networks. Envirosuite’s journey is underway as we bring that understanding to all of the decision makers in water utilities. The early insights we’ve obtained by engaging with operators since the beginning of the commercialisation process can only help improve the product as we continue along our journey.
Chaim Kolominskas is the manager of EVS Water, a suite of products designed to improve environmental and operational performance in the water industry. Chaim has worked with environmental issues for over 20 years and has been working with Envirosuite for over 13 years to deliver environmental and operational improvements around the world.