Navigant Research Blog

Smart Meters Industry Consolidation Continues with Xylem’s Sensus Acquisition

— August 25, 2016

MeterOn August 15, Xylem, a global water technology company, announced that it had acquired Sensus in an all-cash transaction worth $1.7 billion. Sensus is a global provider of smart meters (with 80 million metering devices in the field), network technologies, and advanced data analytics, with a focus in North America. The company’s roots lie in the smart water metering business, though it maintains a significant installed base in electric and gas utilities. Some of Sensus’ notable electric advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) deployments include Southern Company, NV Energy, Portland General Electric, Alliant Energy, and Cleco Power LLC.

Industry Consolidation

As markets have matured and smart grid technologies have evolved, new industry motivations such as interoperability and deep integration among technologies have emerged, as evidenced by a string of recent industry consolidation transactions. Aclara made headlines in December 2015 with its acquisition of hardware provider GE Meters. This was quickly followed by another acquisition of Tollgrade communications earlier this month. Additionally, Honeywell completed its acquisition of Elster’s metering business in January of this year. The Xylem/Sensus transaction is just the latest example of industry consolidation, and it sets the company up to be a major player in the smart water market.

Smart Water Market

While smart electric meters have traditionally maintained the lion’s share of smart meter coverage, higher penetration rates and increasing concerns over water security offer growth potential for smart water meters and associated technologies going forward. With the low cost of water that many of us experience today, it’s easy to take this increasingly scarce resource for granted. Yet, the United Nations is expecting a 40% shortfall in water supply by 2030. This alarming prediction is the product of a variety of factors—growth in energy and food consumption, wasteful irrigation practices, inefficient pricing, industrial growth in emerging economies, and pollution and water quality issues, among others. All of this is suffice it to say that responsible water management through the use of smart meters and advanced data analytics among other technologies is going to play an increasingly vital role in global security—an opportunity that Xylem is now primed to take advantage of.

Sensus has traditionally been focused on North America with limited international deployments; nearly 70% of the company’s 2016 revenue was generated in the United States. This may be set to change as Xylem has highlighted its expansive customer relations and ability to extend the reach of Sensus’ technologies to new global markets. Combining the capabilities and scope of these two companies sets Xylem up for strong growth potential and the opportunity to be a global leader in smart water technologies moving forward.

 

Back to the Land, in the City

— December 23, 2014

Urban farming may sound like an oxymoron, but more and more cities are looking at the role of urban food production to reduce the embedded carbon cost of transporting food long distances (food-miles), to improve food education, and to regenerate run-down city areas.

In many cities, of course, there has never been a clear line between the city and country.  A new study, for example, indicates the degree to which urban farming has a significant role in city economies.  According to the report from the International Water Management Institute (IWWI), around 69 million hectares (around 6% of the world’s cropland) are being cultivated within cities.  Furthermore, 456 million hectares (1.1 billion acres), an area roughly the size of the European Union, is under cultivation in close proximity to urban environments.

Urban farming is widely practiced across the world: 87% of cities greater than 50,000 have some irrigated farming and 98% having some rain-fed cropland.  The report suggests that there is significant potential for the local sourcing of food for the growing cities of the developing world, but it also highlights the issues this presents in terms of water and wastewater management.  In particular, a lack of water treatment facilities means that there are significant dangers to human health from cultivation that uses unclean water.

Scaling Up

In Accra, for example, 10% of the city’s wastewater may be used for urban farms without adequate treatment.  Another study has estimated that 85% of cities discharge their wastewater without appropriate treatment.  Strategies to support and expand local food provision for growing cities must, therefore, be closely aligned with improvements to water distribution and water treatment systems. Developing cities need to find ways to integrate existing urban farming sites with their water management and land use policies if they are to retain the benefits of local production.

In the developed cities of North America and other parts of the world, urban farming has been recognized since the 1970s as an important tool to help community regeneration programs in areas like the Bronx in New York.  Now cities are looking to technology to make local production viable at a commercial scale.

To Feed the Center

For example, Lufa Farms is running two rooftop gardens in Montreal using hydroponic technology, which provides nutrients to plants through an integrated water system rather than soil.  They have also been reassessing the sales and distribution issues that are equally important to make urban farming commercially successful.  Other technologies to enable large-scale urban food production include aquaponics, which integrates fish and plant farming, as practiced by Urban Organics in St. Paul, Minnesota. Urban Organics is located in a former brewery and is part of a broader, city-supported urban regeneration program.  In Europe, LokDepot in Basel, Switzerland is the first commercial aquaponics farm.

Any true measure of a city’s total energy consumption, its environmental footprint, or its economic resilience needs to consider the relationship between the urban center and the resources on which it relies.  Food production is one of the most important of those resources.   In different ways the community gardens and high-tech vertical farms of North American and European cities and the farming enclaves of Accra and other cities in Africa and Asia all show how cities need to think more locally about food production.  As droughts and expanding urban populations put pressure on water supplies and food costs, an intelligent approach to food production will become a critical issue for many communities.

 

Rethinking Water Use in Buildings

— September 8, 2014

Bad news about the water supply keeps rolling in.  In July, a study on the groundwater in the Colorado Basin found that 53 million acre-feet of water (65 billion cubic meters) had been depleted between December 2004 and November 2013.  The historic drought in the western United States is so severe that it is causing mountains to rise.  And ominous signs of water scarcity are not limited to the United States.  Farmers in Vietnam are converting rice paddies to shrimp farms as the dry season gets dryer and the rising South China Sea turns coastal freshwater ponds salty.  Water scarcity threatens much of the world economy, from the food industry to the mining industry to the petrochemical industry.

Though climate change accounts for a part of the unfolding water crisis, water management practices are driving the problem.  Water has long been treated as a free and inexhaustible raw material.  As a result, it’s used inefficiently.  While great progress has been made in increasing awareness of energy efficiency, water continues to be taken for granted.  Without major changes, two-thirds of the world’s population could be living in water-stressed conditions by 2025.

Water Scarcity and the Built Environment

Buildings account for about 12% of water use in the United States.  Already, water conservation efforts and greater efficiencies in using water have led to a reduction in water withdrawals.  But, for further gains, fundamentally rethinking the built environment is necessary.  For the most part, everything that needs water in a building is provided with potable freshwater.  Similarly, all wastewater is treated the same.  But not everything needs potable water.  And rather than being disposed of, some wastewater can be recycled.  Water from a sink can be reused to flush a toilet.  Water from a bathtub can be used for landscape irrigation.  When water is cheap and abundant, it makes sense to have a single system for all water needs and a single system to dispose of all “used” water.  But meeting all water needs with potable water may soon no longer be an option.

Similar recycling efforts can be achieved with stormwater runoff.  Many municipalities treat stormwater runoff and domestic sewage the same, using a combined sewer system to transport them in a single pipe to a sewage treatment plant (though heavy rainfall or snowmelt can create undesirable outcomes for combined sewers).  Rather than building infrastructure to capture and transport stormwater through gutters and sewers, capturing it to recharge groundwater or for direct nonpotable consumption can directly improve the water situation.  Indeed, the Pacific Institute estimates that urbanized Southern California and the San Francisco Bay region have the potential to increase water supplies by 420,000 to 630,000 acre-feet per year simply by better managing stormwater runoff.

One Word: Graphene

Of course, when we talk about water scarcity, we refer to only freshwater, which accounts for only 2.5% of total global water.  Desalinating abundant seawater is a seemingly attractive workaround, a way to solve water scarcity without the difficult task of changing water use habits.  Unfortunately, desalination, for now, is expensive and energy-intensive.  The most common form of desalination, reverse osmosis, forces seawater through a polymer membrane.  The membrane allows water molecules to pass, but blocks salt molecules.

Graphene, an allotrope (i.e., a different structural form) of carbon, which shows promise in battery technology, quantum computing, health monitoring, and solar cells, could reduce the cost and energy associated with desalinating water.  The gaps in polymer membranes are determined by the physical and chemical properties of the polymer used.  Gaps in graphene must be punched, so they can be sized to reduce the amount of pressure needed to pass water through but still prevent salt from passing through.  Lockheed Martin and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are both working on overcoming the engineering problems associated with graphene membranes.  Commercial viability may still be several years away, but graphene may make desalination accessible enough to meet the world’s needs for clean water.

 

Silicon Valley Tackles the Energy-Water Nexus

— June 18, 2014

No two systems in the built environment are more tightly linked than energy and water.  It’s hard to identify a pathway of conversion, conveyance, and utility of energy and water that does not touch the other system in one way or another.  This is commonly referred to as the energy-water nexus.  A recent Navigant Research report, Smart Water Networks, touched on this topic, in the context of water network innovations and their link to recent changes in the smart grid.

A recent blog by my colleague Eric Woods emphasized the future trends in water at a global scale.  According to the United Nations, water demand will increase by 55% by 2050, with drastic increases in the manufacturing sector.  At the same time, more than 40% of the global population is projected to be living in areas of severe water stress through 2050.  On the energy side, energy consumption is set to grow as well.  According to the 2013 International Energy Outlook, world energy consumption will grow by 56% between 2010 and 2040, mostly in the developing world.

(Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration)

Stresses on the System

And where do energy and water meet?  For consumers, look no further than your daily shower or dishwasher.  Heating water consumes 7% of commercial and 12% of residential energy in the United States.  With common appliances, it’s clear that making them more water or energy efficient cascades to savings of the other resource.

Another clear linkage in the energy-water nexus is hydropower.  In 2010, 16.1% of the world’s energy was generated using hydropower, and four countries – Albania, Bhutan, Lesotho, and Paraguay – generated all of their power from this source.

Looking back upstream in both energy and water, the linkages are equally impressive.  15% of all water is used for the energy sector.  Conveyance or pumping consumes more than 3% of the world’s energy, and in California alone, 7.7% of energy is used for water infrastructure.  Both systems are under stress from increases in demand, as mentioned earlier, but also from droughts, energy scarcity, and in some regions, political vulnerability (virtually all major river systems pass through more than one country).

Open Water Dive

Industry is taking notice.

At a recent Silicon Valley Leadership Group Energy and Sustainability Summit, I moderated a panel on how the cleantech space is making strides to manage the energy-water nexus in California and globally.  Chris King from eMeter (a Siemens company) discussed the need for open water data, analogous to the Green Button initiative.   Cynthia Truelove of the Center for Collaborative Policy argued that the disruptive technology that has made Silicon Valley so successful should carry over into creating disruptive policy that enables joint energy-water regulation that accounts for carbon impacts.  David Koller, from the Coachella Valley Water District, chronicled a pilot study that enabled customers to drastically cut down on water by providing them with smart water meters and relevant feedback in their bills.  From Imagine H2O, a water startup accelerator, Scott Bryan identified how WaterSmart, a company in its portfolio, is demonstrating success at becoming the “Opower for water.”  Some utilities are achieving a 5% reduction in residential water use in 6 months.

The discussion highlighted the need for a concerted effort among industry, policymakers, and end users to tackle the multifaceted challenge of the energy-water nexus of the present and the future.

 

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