Summary:

Information technology has brought benefits to industries as diverse as finance and food processing — now it’s coming to your local water utility. Tech-giant IBM on Monday will launch a water management system for utilities that it says will bring much-needed intelligence to the treatment and […]

Information technology has brought benefits to industries as diverse as finance and food processing — now it’s coming to your local water utility. Tech-giant IBM on Monday will launch a water management system for utilities that it says will bring much-needed intelligence to the treatment and distribution of water. The system will automatically collect all sorts of important data — like water quality, pump rates, and water use at meters — analyze the data and then package it into easy-to-consume formats for water mangers to evaluate.

Cameron Brooks, IBM’s director of solutions and business development for IBM’s Big Green Innovations initiative, says the management system IS THE first TO bring together this type of information into one place and enable water managers to customize the system and make quick decisions.

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Distributing water often relies on sprawling and diffuse systems, and water managers today regularly work with spotty knowledge about what is happening in their systems on a real-time basis. IBM’s management platform, which will depend on sensors to read and then transmit the data made from third-party vendors, will make water systems more robust and efficient, Mr. Brooks said. The data will help managers react to problems more quickly, reduce water loss, and implement conservation programs. That should also help drive down costs — treating and distributing water is a costly undertaking and consumes large amounts of energy. The less water you lose, the more you save on the electricity bill.

Mr. Harry Kolar, IBM’s chief architect for sensor-based solutions, compared the water management system to the trend of smartening up the power grid using IT. “Ideally, you don’t just send the water out there and hope it reaches consumers. You can employ intelligent metering in the same way the electric grid is getting more intelligent—from source to tap,” he said.

Neither Mr. Kolar nor Mr. Brooks would comment on the potential size of the market for IBM’s newest offering. But it’s safe to say, however, that it’s massive. People around the world depend on utilities to treat and supply fresh water. And IBM certainly has its sights on all corners of the globe. Already the Armonk, N.Y.-based tech behemoth is working on water projects in Amsterdam, Dublin, and New York. The company is helping the country of Malta to build a “smart” electricity and water utility system.

IBM’s move also highlights the growing interest among technology companies in the water industry. Fresh water is increasingly becoming big business as population growth, contamination, and climate change put pressure on the resource. A 2008 JP Morgan study predicted that by 2025, major economies, including the U.S., Western Europe, China and India, will likely experience significant water problems as consumption outstrips supply replenishment. GE has made water one of its focuses as part of its Ecomagination initiative. Microsoft has developed software to help companies measure and report sustainability data, including the use of water. And, increasingly, venture-backed startups are developing new water-focused technologies, like filtration and desalinization systems.

Gary Klein, managing partner of Affiliated International Management, a water-focused consultancy in Sacramento, Calif., said he sees a significant business opportunity in water management. But he said utilities should also be monitoring their energy consumption at pumps. Just tracking water won’t be enough for communities and utilities to fully understand their water systems, he said.

As part of the announcement, IBM also said it had made a “major breakthrough” in its development of an energy-efficient membrane for water purification. The company said the new membrane is more energy efficient than technologies currently on the market, but IBM wouldn’t say when the product would be ready for commercialization.

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