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Interview: Professor Dragan Savic, Exeter University

"If you can't measure, you can't manage - and the most uncertain element of water management is the demand."

Professor Dragan Savic is co-director of the University of Exeter's Centre for Water SystemsProfessor Dragan Savic is co-director of the University of Exeter's Centre for Water Systems

CV: Professor Dragan Savic

- Professor Dragan Savic is a founder and co-director of the Centre for Water Systems in the College of Engineering Mathematics and Physical Sciences (CEMPS) at the University of Exeter, an internationally recognised group for excellence in water and environmental science research.

- He is the first Professor of Hydroinformatics in the UK, having held this post in the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences since 2001.

- As a civil engineer with water specialisation background, he worked as a consultant in his native Serbia, before moving to Canada, where he obtained a PhD at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. In 1994 he returned to academia and was appointed Lecturer at the University of Exeter in 1995, where he was promoted to a Chair in 2001.

- He is an elected fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering (UK), member of the European Academy of Sciences, fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers, fellow of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, and fellow of the International Water Association.

- He is also director of the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Water Informatics and Science and Engineering (WISE CDT).

-Interview by James Brockett

The combination of smart metering and increasing retail competition will allow companies and customers to make the link between water and energy use, unlocking savings and efficiencies, according to a leading academic in the field of smart water.

Professor Dragan Savic, co-director of the Centre for Water Systems at Exeter University, tells WWT that retail competition will mean that new entrants and incumbents alike will need to offer additional services to win customers in a competitive environment, and smart metering and the tie-up with energy could be key to this.

“We’ve already seen at least one new entrant offering energy and water retail together, and this is one of the biggest business innovations I expect to happen over the next five to twenty years,” says Professor Savic. “We are all looking at smart meters and the idea of managing demand and giving instantaneous feedback to customers, and it’s estimated that if you introduce this to residential customers it would equate to an average £6 reduction in their water bill over a year. That doesn’t sound much, does it? But the thing is that we use so much energy in our households related to heating water, that small reduction in water use will equate to a big reduction in energy use.”

Smart metering is a single innovation that has multiple benefits to several different parties, he points out. Not only can the customer save on both water and energy costs, and retailers win business as a result, but better usage data will be the key to clamping down on customer-side leakage, which accounts for around a quarter of water losses. In areas of water stress, such as London and the South East, managing demand will help ease pressure on resources, while in other areas serving a large geographical area, the data will help wholesale businesses manage the network more effectively.

“There is an old adage that if you can’t measure, you can’t manage - and the most uncertain element of water management is the demand,” says Savic.

Yet it is these multiple benefits that often make it especially difficult to calculate the investment case for smart technologies, he adds.

“The providers of smart solutions often sell their technology without really understanding how the business benefits of that new technology can be quantified and refined. In the water industry, the benefits are not always in a single utility. So if by reducing water usage we reduce energy usage, should it just be the water company that has to pay for a water meter, or do we find another beneficiary to contribute to the cost? One of the barriers to innovation is how to quantify those kind of externalities in the cost-benefit analysis which is normally used for deciding whether a new technology will be implemented or not.”

Professor Savic is talking to me in advance of the WWT Smart Water Networks Conference in March, which he is chairing. The exciting aspect about this subject is that smart technology and real-time data will prove an enabler for change across the water sector - not just on the customer side, but in the water management and wastewater too.

Urban drainage and wastewater network modelling is one particular strength of the research team at Exeter University. He says that while wastewater networks have in the past been seen as the “poor cousin” of clean water networks when it comes to innovation and investment, this is now beginning to change, and he is in no doubt about the potential for sensing and real-time information to make a transformative difference in this field.

“There is currently very little use of real-time management in these networks - for example, in taking advantage of storage. It should be possible to store water in upstream parts of the network when you are expecting heavy rainfall, reducing the pressure on wastewater treatment works, combined sewer overflows and their impact on the environment. There are quite a lot of opportunities there. Also in managing infiltration into the systems: we have this big problem in the UK where rainfall and high groundwater levels impact on wastewater networks, coming into the system and reducing its capacity.”

An example of some of the work underway at Exeter on this includes temperature sensing in sewers to assess the amount of infiltration. As groundwater and stormwater are significantly cooler than domestic sewage, analysis of temperature can tell you a lot about the extent of infiltration, if the changing nature of daily flows is allowed for. The technology required to achieve this is relatively inexpensive, yet it could lead to large savings in terms of helping to prioritise interventions.

However, despite the excitement and potential of smart water, a number of barriers remain to its effective implementation, he warns.

“There are no commonly accepted standards, for example on smart meters, and so a lot of these systems do not talk to each other,” he says. “You buy a meter from one company, and you wouldn’t be able to use it with somebody else’s monitoring equipment. So interoperability in the smart network world is a big problem. One other problem on the customer side is privacy of data: whoever is using customer data has to be very careful about it, and while customers should be encouraged to share the data with whoever is providing the service, they cannot be compelled to do so.

“I fully understand why water companies are reluctant to put data into open sources, because there is that conflict between competition and business sensitive information. But on the other hand, they also realise that they can’t do everything themselves. Making data open to other providers of potential smart services might be a win-win situation for them and their customers.”

Professor Savic is the director of the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Water Informatics: Science and Engineering (WISE CDT) which includes Bath, Bristol and Cardiff universities as well as Exeter; he says that hydroinformatics (or water informatics) is a growth area in water sector academia, attracting some of the brightest minds in the field. However, one of his concerns is that this pool of talent, and funding for innovative research, do not dry up following the vote for UK to leave the European Union.

“There is a real danger that if we do not contribute to the joint European Commission funding of research, we will be left on our own; and I don’t think it’s likely that similar funds could be made available for research in the UK only,” he warns. “And it’s not just funding, it’s actually working with the leading researchers from European countries and overseas. Obviously that will suffer if we as a country close ourselves off and look inwards.”

- Professor Dragan Savic is chairing WWT’s Smart Water Networks conference in Birmingham on March 21st. Agenda details and how to attend: http://events.wwtonline.co.uk/smartnetworks

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