Part 1: New Opportunities in Smart Water Systems

By Deane Dray, RBC Capital Markets, LLC
Published October 15, 2020 | 3 min read

As part of its ‘Future of Water Conference’ on September 29th, 2020, RBC Capital Markets held a panel on ‘New Opportunities in Smart Water Systems,’ moderated by Deane Dray, Managing Director, Equity Research, RBC Capital Markets, and Bill Malarkey of Amane Advisors. All participants agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the industry’s digitalisation and they were optimistic about its future prospects.

ESG Stratify: Separating the signal from the noise

COVID-19 has sped up the adoption of digital water technologies

“We’ve seen a lot of appetite for point solutions over the years and we expect it to continue – that’s the integration of hardware and software to solve valuable problems in business support to support operations,” Kevin Klau, Danaher VP & Group Executive, Water Quality, said. “We are seeing a lot of these solutions in asset management.” Klau is also seeing large scale deployments typically at enterprise level in the environmental part of the water sector, to help collect and process large amounts of information to help customers make better decisions, lower costs, improve compliance etc.

The water industry has quickly adapted

“COVID-19 was difficult in manufacturing with several thousand employees always six feet away from each other prior to the pandemic,” said Scott Hall, President & Chief Executive Officer, Mueller Water Products. However, after redesigning workstations and factory floors, some efficiencies were lost but Hall thinks they did a “good job” from a work separation point of view and expects the impact to be minimal going forward. Despite the lack of visibility of economic circumstances due to the pandemic, he expects cashflow and performance to continue to be as good as in the [fiscal] third quarter. Hall believes most of the metering and reading activities can be automated today. “The installations of water infrastructure date back from World War II. We’re of the mind that time for reinvestment has long since passed.” Hence the need for new tools available for smart information, monitoring systems, more analytics, etc. “We’re very excited about the future,” he concluded.

Water players have a resilient business model

Ron Keating, President and Chief Executive Officer, Evoqua Water Technologies, found the impact of COVID 19 “very challenging” due to the company’s very diverse set of end markets. Priorities initially were keeping employees safe and having a strong balance sheet. Then came the opportunities. “COVID has shifted the curve to the left and proved which customers were interested in switching to connected solutions,” Keating added. This has helped ensure the company can be on site 24/7 virtually or helped its service task diagnose exactly what they had to do before going on site. “The crisis has driven the adoption rate of connected solutions through our client base overall,” he said, benefiting pent up demand with customers due to have smart water solutions done before lockdown. “We have a pretty resilient business model.”

Long-term challenges remain

“The industry is facing three major challenges,” stressed Patrick Decker, Chief Executive Officer, Xylem. “Scarcity of water, resilience of infrastructure and how we address those in a way that is affordable,” he explained. Decker pointed out scarcity is not just a problem for emerging countries but also for industrial customers trying to access to water as they attempt to expand globally and many draughts are witnessed in parts of the world that we had never seen before. “Resilience include solving the challenges of climate change and now the pandemic,” he noted. As for affordability, how do utilities, municipalities, individuals pay for it? “Here in the US, the wealthiest country on the planet, those on the 20% lower wages, spend 20% on their net take home pay on water bills. It’s become a huge political issue,” he said. Technology can help address and deal with this, but the solution is not just digital – existing products and solutions that have capabilities embedded in them can solve this issue, he argued.

Deane Dray, RBC Capital Markets, LLC

Deane Dray, RBC Capital Markets, LLC
Managing Director, Multi-Industry & Electrical Equipment Equity Analyst