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A burgeoning population, climate change and an aging sewage system are putting New York City’s water utility to the test. In one day, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) supplies about 1 billion gallons of fresh water and processes 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater for nearly 10 million residents.
August 7, 2023
A burgeoning population, climate change, and an aging sewage system are putting New York City’s water utility to the test.
In one day, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) supplies about 1 billion gallons of fresh water and processes 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater for nearly 10 million residents. The job entails keeping 14,500 miles of infrastructure in check that bring the clean water into the five Burroughs and carry wastewater out to a sprawling network of treatment plants. Erratic and severe weather patterns in recent years are taxing the 100-plus-year-old system, calling on DEP to adapt and build resiliency. At the same time, the agency is charged with enforcing noise and air pollution codes, among tasks to safeguard the environment and public health.
These are intensely data-driven and technology-dependent jobs, and as DEP works to stay on its game, it has turned to The Partnership Fund for New York City for help finding more powerful technologies to upgrade its system and improve efficiency.
In answer, The Partnership Fund, a $130 million investment arm of the Partnership for New York City, launched an accelerator, the Environmental Tech Lab (ETL), to connect DEP with young companies whose innovations are a potential match to the agency’s needs and goals; it has very specific ones.
“We look forward to applicants to the ETL proposing solutions that can help us to leverage the vast amounts of existing data that we collect throughout our operations to enhance the management of assets and improve predictive maintenance and management of our infrastructure. That includes additional automation,” a DEP spokesperson wrote to Waste360.
Predictive analytics and monitoring capabilities are especially piquing interest, like the ability to detect potential sewer and water main failures and stormwater backflow. Stakeholders want to know what models they could run to determine the need for changes in chemical dosing for water and wastewater, and to inform on water storage.
On the automation front the agency is looking for what’s out there to better manage construction oversight tasks done manually today, from budgeting to engineering reviews to risk assessment. And it’s got its eye on green construction and building information management tools that automate carbon lifecycle assessments and track sustainability data, as well as tools to optimize fleet operations.
The idea of this program is to make it easier for budding companies with promising ideas to get in front of DEP to be heard and test their solutions, which can take time if it happens at all, says Maria Gotsch, president and CEO of the Partnership Fund for New York City.
“We are looking specifically for technologies from small companies in early and growth stages because that’s where most cutting-edge innovations are happening. So, we are enabling discovery,” Gotsch says.
What’s in it for DEP is a chance to check out new technologies of entrepreneurs who have not been on the agency’s radar, and a chance to vet these emerging companies’ prototypes through a streamlined testing process.
On a larger scale, ideally, the model will accelerate the roll out of innovations to more takers by having high-profile players evaluate them first.
Companies that are accepted into the accelerator after the application process will participate in an eight-week "proof of concept" to pitch their value proposition and show their model at work. That will be the time for DEP to do a deep dive to better understand how the technologies work, then decide if they want to do a full-scale, roughly year-long, pilot.
Moving to pilot is the first step and an important one for any business.
“And for these young companies to be able to say their technology is being piloted by the largest water system in the country is a huge badge of honor,” Gotsch says.
The Partnership Fund, backed by New York’s business community, began its work in the private sector with large banks, insurance companies, and money management firms, connecting young, small companies to these industry giants.
Gotsch’s team moved that early model to the public sector in 2018, launching the Transit Technology Lab (TTL) with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), helping the agency find new technologies to upgrade and operate its system in the midst of the subway crisis. So far, the TTL has fielded over 600 applicants, tested 36 technologies designed to improve public transit, and facilitated six procurements across New York MTA’s footprint.
The early work with the transit agencies carried some weight with the impact fund’s newest government partner. The model proved it could bring emerging technology companies together with existing large organizations to test non-traditional solutions, DEP wrote.
Plans are to bring in new accelerator applicants each year to help solve different challenges of the region’s water and wastewater utilities now and into the future.
“By providing this unique opportunity for tech companies to collaborate with the DEP, we believe the lab can yield immense benefits for our water network, participating tech companies, and New Yorkers,” says Stacey Matlen, vice president of Innovation at the Partnership for New York City.
Freelance writer, Waste360
Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine; hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.
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