The Utility Communications Spectrum – Finding what works

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As water industry observers recognize, utilities have historically considered themselves silent providers of service. In the past, customers would only choose to communicate with their utility in the case of frustration or dissatisfaction: A high bill; water quality concerns; a service outage. Thus utilities would often measure customer satisfaction by a lack of interaction with their ratepayers.

Consequently, and unsurprisingly, utilities have minimized communication with stakeholders on the theory that it is better not to attract too much attention. In the relatively infrequent cases when they have chosen to communicate, they generally use one of two modes:

  1. Pure broadcast: Blanket communications, using a single set of content for every message sent. Think billboards, bill stuffers, door hangers, static web pages, and, more recently, social media channels such as Facebook or Twitter. These approaches are undirected and largely ineffective, except in huge quantities. In marketing or sales parlance this approach is
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Hacking the Water Problem

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Water and energy are intimately linked: no energy, no water; no water, no energy. Just one example – there is a huge amount of energy embedded in every drop of water. For example, 19% of California’s electricity is used in the heating, extraction, transportation and treatment of water.

At WaterSmart, we bridge the digital & physical worlds of water; we are using powerful network effects to do so; and we are using big data, in the cloud, to solve a critical resource problem. Water is delicious, essential, and irreplaceable.  You would think we would take better care of it.

The World Economic Forum identified Water as the #1 global risk for 2015 in terms of potential impact. This isn’t very surprising surprising: there’s about the same amount of water around today as 4 billion years ago, but there 7 billion more people, on the way to 8 billion. More of … see more

Job Number One (and Two, and Three)

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Utility executives have never been under more pressure. A growing number of factors are making life more difficult for most water suppliers. Challenges such as unpredictable weather patterns, water quality crises, long term droughts, huge capital investment requirements, population growth and urbanization are all having impacts – right now – beyond anything their predecessors dealt with or imagined.

In times of difficulty, the ability to effectively prioritize delivers outsize returns. So it is worth taking a moment to focus on the critical imperatives that drive success or failure for a modern water utility. In our book, it doesn’t count as prioritization if the list has 27 items, so we have boiled it down to the three basics.

  1. Quality of Service
    Traditionally, “Job Number One” for utility managers was to maintain Quality of Service. They pursued this to the exclusion of all else, and spent their effort on maintaining operations
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Punishing Efficiency

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With the passing of several years since the Great Recession, citizens and governments are making fitful progress in repairing their broken balance sheets. However, everyone remains concerned with mitigating risks to growth. Among other efforts, advanced economies have continued to reduce their exposure to oil supply or price shocks. Yet oil is just one of a number of energy sources on which economic growth depends, and for many it will form a decreasing part of their portfolios in the coming decades.

This is partly due to the rise of new sources of energy. We now have access to much cleaner forms of energy such as natural gas. We also have ‘renewable’ sources in greater quantities in the form of solar, wind, wave, geo-thermal, bio-diesel, and others.

In addition, we have seen steady improvements in energy efficiency as well as ongoing decreases in energy-intensive activities as our economies are driven … see more

The Economic Quandary of Water

The economics of the water industry are well represented by Churchill’s famous description of Russia: “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” It’s genuinely difficult to deconstruct the underlying economics of so many elements of the industry: Costs for variant supply sources, treatment chemicals and pumping energy, as well as subsidies, rate structures, infrastructure amortization, bond financing and many other financial factors. However, it’s clear that the status quo isn’t sustainable. We can’t keep water this cheap and still maintain safety and abundance. But there’s a path out if we base decisions on complete data and communicate clearly and accurately with consumers.

Water utilities have done an amazing job of ensuring reliable and safe water service, to the point where it has become a figure of speech. No Silicon Valley fundraising pitch passes without the inevitable Uber reference, and their mission statement is: “Transportation as reliable as … see more

Economics, Equity & Water

“Whiskey is for drinking – water is for fighting over.”

As you can tell from the breathless headlines and mutual recriminations in the air, this famous saying (often attributed to Mark Twain) has never been more apt here in the West. The drought in California is, in fact, just one point on a continuum of water stress that will afflict 40 states over the next decade, according to the US Government Accountability Office. And that is based on “average” water conditions for 2013; it is probably fair to say that this year we are gaining an even deeper understanding of likely future water conditions.

When we aren’t berating nut farmers, some of our favorite targets are the lawns of the rich and famous. And for all of the hyperventilation about agricultural water use, at least that end product is consumed (mostly by urban populations) and creates economic … see more