Fairfax Water’s Tammy Powlas on producing good quality water cheaply

We talk to utilities a lot here on GreenMonk, but mostly electrical utilities. Recently I had an opportunity to talk to Tammy Powlas of water utility Fairfax Water to learn more about what they do.

It was a fascinating chat we had. Fairfax water makes extensive use of technology and also embue a culture in their employees of putting the customers’ needs first, and as a result, they produce safe, consistent, and cheap water for their constituency. This is vital work considering how important water is to our everyday lives.

Here is a transcript of our conversation:

Tom Raftery: Hey everyone! Welcome to GreenMonk TV. I am talking today to Tammy Powlas who is a senior business analyst with Fairfax Water. Tammy, water utilities, it’s an interesting field and one that we don’t talk about enough often. I think people take water for granted often, but it’s one of our more valuable resources. Can you give us a bit of background first on Fairfax Water? What kind of size are you, who do you deliver water to, and what kind of challenges you’re facing, that kind of thing.

Tammy Powlas: Okay, yes, Fairfax Water, we are the largest water utility in the State of Virginia. Currently, we serve 1.7 million people water, and one out of every five Virginians gets their water from us. We serve the Fairfax County and surrounding counties. One of our challenges or immediate challenges is we’re acquiring two new water utilities in our area. The other thing about Fairfax Water, we pride ourselves on being one of the lowest cost water utilities in the Washington, D.C., Virginia, Maryland area.

Tom Raftery: Great! So you give cheap water to people. Does that necessarily mean that’s good water?

Tammy Powlas: Oh, absolutely! We have a lab group who does testing. We have two sources of water. They are very active in testing that. Our customers can request at anytime, what’s the quality of the water. So we pride ourselves on giving the best lowest cost water in the D.C. area, and it’s always available.

Tom Raftery: And to coin the phrase, do you eat your own dog food, are you a —

Tammy Powlas: Yeah, I am a Fairfax Water customer. I live in Fairfax County. I have been a Fairfax Water customer since 1999. I’ve had good service from Fairfax Water as a customer. I do eat my own dog food, yeah.

Tom Raftery: So how do you manage to keep the prices down?

Tammy Powlas: Well, for us, I think it comes from the general manager on down. We are public sector water utility, I forgot to mention that. So revenue, we’re not tied to revenue, but we pride ourselves on always doing what’s the least cost or what’s the most cost efficient thing for our customers. So everything always has to have a business case. We do a cost benefit analysis, and it’s always questioned from the general manager, the finance manager, is this going to fit our customers, is this the best solution for our customers. So we pride ourselves on always thinking in those terms and the whole company does.

Tom Raftery: Okay. Is technology helping out at all?

Tammy Powlas: Oh, absolutely! We’ve been using the SAP utilities solution since 2004, and that has really helped us integrate all our solutions together from billing, from maintenance, and very importantly, financials. So that helps us manage the cost, manage our maintenance, manage our bills, everything is all together. We have integrated financial statements in SAP that even using a business object software, it’s all come together and really helped us be more efficient for our customer.

Tom Raftery: Okay. I mean water utilities, and utilities in general, have large issues around infrastructure management. How do you handle that?

Tammy Powlas: That’s handled also in SAP using the Plant Maintenance Solution. We’ve been lucky, because our infrastructure is relatively new compared to our surrounding utilities, surrounding jurisdictions like Washington, D.C. which to me has a lot of issues with the aging infrastructure. So for us, we’re very active in predicting what’s going to go wrong, planning our maintenance, so that’s part of our whole company.

Tom Raftery: Sure! I mean what are plans moving forward for tech roll outs and the interesting projects on the horizon, to help you better serve your customers?

Tammy Powlas: Oh, absolutely! For sure after data migrations, I would see it’s giving more visibility into how our customers are using the water, how am I consuming the water, how do I compare to my neighbors. So we’ve been relatively lucky. We haven’t had to tell our customers to boil the water, we haven’t had water shutoff, we don’t regulate the water and say you can only water on every other day. So we’ve been fairly lucky with that. But, I think given that people want to be more sustainable, I think they are going to want to see how am I managing my water and how am I consuming and how do I compare to my neighbors.

Tom Raftery: And smart meters?

Tammy Powlas: Smart meters, we have not looked at that yet. I think that is coming. What’s interesting is some of these jurisdictions that we’re getting, they have automated meter readings, and I think that will come. I think that’s got to be on the horizon. I am giving you my personal opinion, I don’t speak to Fairfax Water but I think that’s going to happen for sure, because I think the customer demand hasn’t happened yet, but I think that’s going to happen over time.

Tom Raftery: As people see the advantages of the smart meters for electricity.

Tammy Powlas: Yeah, absolutely! I can see that today with my own electric bill. I can log on and do all that and there’s a lot of benefits to that and there is a lot of incentives for the utility company as well.

Tom Raftery: Okay, cool! Tammy, that’s been great. Thanks once again for talking to us today.

Tammy Powlas: Absolutely! Thank you, thank you Tom!


Trilliant’s Bill Vogel on Smart Grids, Demand Response and Investment

Electrical grid
Photo Credit ogimogi

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Episode 3 of the GreenMonk Podcasts – 42 mins 47 secs

My guest on this podcast is President, Chief Executive Officer, and Founder of Trilliant Bill Vogel. Trilliant are a company that

provides intelligent network solutions and software to utilities for advanced metering, demand response, and smart grid management. With more than twenty years experience solving meter communications needs, Trilliant focuses on the adoption of open standards-based technologies for electric, gas, and water utilities.

And Trilliant recently announced that it had closed a $40m funding round so I was interested to know how Bill felt smart grids could help reduce carbon footprints. I invited him to come on the show to discuss this and also to answer questions I solicited from readers of this site.

Here are the questions I asked Bill and the approx. times I asked them:

For anyone who is not sure what a Smart Grid is, can you give us a quick Smart Grid 101? – 0:18

How does that differ from the current grid infrastructure that we have? – 01:12

How does that work? – 02:22

And why would that be of benefit to consumers? – 03:48

Questions from readers:

Asa Hopkins
In the Trilliant vision of the future, what level of access will an individual consumer have to their own energy data, and with what time resolution? Will they be able to export raw data? Manipulate it through Trilliant software? Compare with neighbors? In the future will there be an open ecosystem of tools to allow individuals to learn more about their energy use and make their own efficiency gains? – 06:05

Are there intelligent enough systems right now to allow your smart meter communicate with your appliances, change your thermostat settings up or down based on energy pricing, that kind of thing, is that a reality yet or is that still a bit of a pipe dream? – 09:22

More questions from readers:

Jerry Sweeney
Trilliant sees its customers as large utility companies. Does Bill see any path where electrical grids could become more democratised. Where dynamic pricing could facilitate the sale and purchase of electricity by small consumers and producers depending on the current real time price. This could lead to huge growth in the production of distributed renewable energy and to the growth in demand response to pricing signals that suggested scarcity or abundance. How can the grid become more like eBay given the stranglehold that TSOs and Utility companies have over it. – 10:21

Are any of the utilities thinking of Demand Response in respect to demand stimulation and not just the traditional peak shaving? – 16:34

Still more questions from readers(!):

-Is there any evidence that information on its own is enough to change consumption? – 18:43
– Is multi-utility metering a real prospect/ has this been done by you? – 20:29
– Is there added value in a ‘Utility Data Channel’ that could be used for Security Systems, Water/Gas/BioHeat/Oil/Sub metering/ equipment control? – 21:47
– Is there interest in Smart Grids from makers of Electric Heating, Micro CHP, and Energy Storage Technologies? – 23:18
– Has electric heating been integrated with the operation of smart grids before? – 24:46
– Can such systems be modular and expandible? – 25:13
– Can open standards have a role in maintaining the long term value of smart metering infrastructure? – 26:00
– How can smart metering support markets in carbon reduction? – 27:45
– What happens if we do not do a form of advanced smart metering in Ireland, what is a worst case? – 29:39
– If Ireland is pioneering high levels of grid wind penetration, which other countries may follow? – 31:26
– How may energy prices impact on your business, is your technology a hedge against rising prices? – 32:28

Mr Energy Rating
What is Trilliant’s definition of the minimum functionality required for a meter to become a smart meter? – 34:07

How fat do the data pipes need to be between smart meters to have a real smart-grid? – 36:47

How do you overcome consumer rejection of Demand Response and avoid the situation in California where a major DR program had to be shelved because of a consumer backlash? – 38:35

You are heavily involved in the HydroOne project in Ontario – what have you learned from such a big project? – 39:50

Final question – you recently announced that you closed a $40m round of funding – what are you going to do with $40m? – 41:28

Download the entire interview here
(39.2mb mp3)