[QTalks Ep.9]
The Role of a Utility Operator

Over the previous eight episodes of QTalks, we’ve looked at high-level topics such as cybersecuritydigital twins, and water security — but in this two-part special we answer: what does this actually mean for utilities on the ground? Those really facing the impacts of climate change, and particularly, what it means for the utility operators.

Joining environmental journalist Tom Freyberg:

Here you can watch part 1. Don’t forget to scroll for part 2!

What does population growth mean for infrastructure investments?

Tom opened the discussion by asking Doeke how the increase in the population from 5.8 million people to 6 million people in the Netherlands will affect investments in infrastructure. Doeke acknowledged that the population increase is a huge problem since the country relies on groundwater wells that take 15 years to deliver water to customers.

He also said that climate change is impacting consumer behavior and that utilities need to be adapting more to external factors, and that investment in new homes with installations that can help reduce water usage significantly is part of the solution.

Joukje, also of Vitens, mentioned that they are building several digital twins. This will help them facilitate knowledge sharing between older employees who are retiring and a younger generation of employees who will be able to access real-time network information.

The digital twins, she said, will also provide them with real-time information on water quality — eliminating the dependence on lab samples — and inform them of how the production plant is operating.

Audi commented on the challenge of predicting the future as a much smaller utility with only five staff members. He said that the utility, instead of trying to look too far ahead, is focusing on using the resources that they have effectively and responsibly as well as water conservation.

The role of the operator in smaller utilities

Tom asked Audi to elaborate on the different roles each Greenville staff member plays given the size of the utility. 

Audi mentioned that they have one full-time operator out in the field, and that they’ve partnered with several different technology providers including strip meter and acoustic listening device technology. He said that one of his primary tasks is to review the data and pinpoint where there are problems and use human resources accordingly to fix those problems. 

Audi also acknowledged that he wears many different hats in his role as water superintendent, including attending meetings on PFAS and PFOS in order to stay up to date with the latest regulations.

Digital twins and PFAS

Tom asked the panel about the connection between digital twins and PFAS. Joukje said that having real-time information on water quality is becoming much more important since they want to be able to inform customers of problems as soon as they can and before they can consume the water. 

Finally, Chris mentioned that there are a lot of solutions now entering the water quality space, and that he hopes that smaller utilities take more risk and consider more innovative business models. He also said that the new regulations will ultimately force them to change the way they do things.

And don’t forget part 2…

How can utilities share knowledge and best practices?

Tom asked the panel how they each believe that behavioral change can be encouraged and whether they use LinkedIn as a source of knowledge sharing.

Audi said that the smaller utility operators in Southern Indiana have experienced a degree of regionalization driven by legislation, and get together every quarter to discuss shared challenges and experiences.

Doeke mentioned that while LinkedIn is a good source for discovering what other companies are doing and discussing, he doesn’t consider it a knowledge platform. He said that he uses it as more of a collaboration tool to connect with others in the water space.

How can utilities attract and retain new talent?

The discussion then turned to how utilities can attract and retain talent in the face of a large number of older engineers retiring, and whether social media has a role to play in the talent acquisition process. 

Joukje said that they have to work much harder nowadays to attract talented water professionals since everyone is competing for the same talent. She said that entire campaigns are dedicated to finding the right talent. Tom added that the fact that younger professionals are likely looking to join organizations that are purpose-driven, innovative, and digital-first is a factor that companies need to take into consideration. 

Chris agreed that younger employees are looking for a different type of employer — one that is socially responsible and has purpose and vision. He also said that mentoring can have a huge impact on effective talent acquisition, but that this notion has depleted somewhat with the rise in global working arrangements.

How can mentorships within utilities facilitate behavioral change?

Leading on from Chris’s comment about mentoring, Tom asked the panel what part mentorships play in their own organizations and the potential for older employees to leave a legacy and knowledge behind. 

Doeke said that Vitens operates a successful onboarding program that connects new starters with others in the company and acts as a type of mentorship program. He said that this type of program is essential as 30% of their employees are due to retire by 2025, and their knowledge needs to be captured and transferred in an effective way. 

Chris mentioned that he thinks there should be more of a sense of urgency concerning the knowledge transfer between employees who will soon retire and the new generation of employees. He also thinks that there are many opportunities for senior-level staff to leave a great legacy behind by using technology to bridge the gap and improve utilities’ efficiency by doing so.  

Audi then went on to comment on how smaller utilities typically have smaller budgets and might struggle to offer the same salary and benefits package that larger utilities can. However, he said that what’s more important is to create an environment where employees are empowered, feel valuable, and know that their experience and expertise contribute to the organization’s overall purpose.

What will the role of the operator look like in the future?

Tom’s last question focused on how the panel sees the role of the operator changing in the future. 

Doeke said that operators will remain important key players in the industry, especially regarding issues such as water quality and PFAS. He also said that the industry in general is moving much faster than it did decades ago and that technology like digital twins will complement the creativity of an operator since it’s inherently a multi-skilled role. 

Audi agreed that the human element will always be important and that it’s unlikely that the role of an operator will become defunct. He said that his utility will start to focus more on partnering with companies that can help them analyze and use the data to enhance their daily operations. He also said that human communication will remain a huge part of the role, especially in communicating with consumers. 

Wrapping up the discussion, Chris mentioned that many operators in utilities of all sizes are concerned about automation and how it will affect job prospects. He said that he hopes that new technology can encourage people to look at the crossover between technology and the industry as an opportunity to be more innovative and efficient.

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