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Member Spotlight

Ruben Fernandes, Executive Board Member – Águas e Energia do Porto EM

Águas e Energia do Porto (AEdP) is a public utility with administrative and financial autonomy, established in October 2006, whose capital is held entirely by the Municipality of Porto. The company carries on with the services provided by the Water and Wastewater Municipal Services of Porto, which was created in 1927. The main activities of the company include the provision of services related to water supply and wastewater drainage and treatment, the management of stormwater drainage systems, river clean ups and rehabilitation of watercourses, and the valorisation of the seafront area (with a special focus on the monitoring of bathing water quality). Regarding energy management, AEdP is responsible for energy efficiency of municipal buildings, renewable electricity generation through Renewable Energy Communities and Production Units for Self-Consumption, charging infrastructure for electric vehicles, and public lighting.

AEdP is considered to be one of the most innovative water utilities in Portugal. In the digitalisation journey of the company, what do you consider to be your flagship projects?

I believe that innovation must be part of the cultural and organisational DNA of the company. To leverage the identification and implementation of innovative ideas and projects, AEdP has invested, over the last years, on co-creation and collaborative processes to define its innovation strategy. This approach has led to the identification of many ideas, which have then been converted into value propositions and prioritised to be implemented in the company. The main outcome of this process was the transformation that it has triggered in the internal and external stakeholders, leading to their greater involvement and commitment to the company’s innovation strategy.

This approach has led to the development of some of AEdP’s biggest projects: H2Porto – a technological platform for the integrated management of the urban water cycle, namely of company’s operations and maintenance activities, and that incorporates all data gathered from over 22 different sources, including the billing system, meters, sensors, SCADA, weather stations and traffic control systems; the App of AEdP – a tool that provides customers with information regarding their consumption behavior (as well as tips for the reduction of water consumption), tap water quality, bathing water quality and information about Porto’s beaches, just to name a few; PEL – Digital Platform for Pipe Connections (which facilitates the interactions with the customers in all the stages of the process of connecting private households to public infrastructures, allowing them to remotely monitor the evolution of the process), and, more recently, NORBI – a new communication and interactive platform with the customers, which aims mainly at standardising the internal treatment of requests for information and for services, as well as of complaints.

AEdP is responsible for the water and energy in the city of Porto. What interconnections and interdependencies do you see between the water and energy sectors? Is there an advantage for one entity to manage both?

This mutual dependence between water and energy underscores the importance of considering both sectors in integrated planning and management, promoting sustainability, resilience, and efficient resource management in both sectors, and ultimately benefiting the society and the environment.

At AEdP, the wastewater treatment plants are responsible for nearly 90% energy consumption of the utility. Conversely, the energy sector also depends on water for several processes. For instance, humankind relies heavily on the endless, constantly recharging system of the water cycle to produce electricity (hydropower). On the other hand, there are also significant opportunities to produce energy by harnessing the embedded energy in wastewater.

The Municipality of Porto has publicly stated its ambition to be an example in the energy transition, the city has committed to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. In order to meet this target, there’s a strategy in place to make the municipality a public producer of electricity, promoting and stimulating local production of renewable energy, increasing the energy efficiency in municipal buildings, expanding the electric mobility network and fighting energy poverty.

With this ambition in mind, AEdP has invested recently in the installation of photovoltaic panel parks at its headquarters, the Water Pavillion (a center for environmental education) and at its wastewater treatment plants. On the other hand, the utility is now also responsible for defining the integrated energy strategy for Porto, which encompasses the implementation of renewable energy production centers within municipal facilities (including energy renewable communities), the promotion of energy efficiency in public lighting and public buildings, the management of the electricity supply contracts of the Municipality, and the development of a network of chargers for electric vehicles.

What do you see as the future of building sustainable water solutions in Porto and beyond?

I think that future sustainable water solutions will likely involve a combination of several aspects such as people (employees and customers), innovative technologies, policies, and practices to address the growing challenges of water scarcity, water quality degradation, and the impacts of climate change. Considering that such an approach must be a multidisciplinary approach, and since AEdP is responsible for the entire management of the urban water cycle of the city, I would advise other Water Utilities not only to adopt this management model, but also to invest in co-creation processes to define their strategic plans, so that employees and stakeholders outside the organisation can be involved. These types of processes are already one of the company’s main sources of ideation and commitment, in the sense that it brings more value to the company and helps to establish its future projects.

Advanced water treatment technologies and processes will be at the center of water utilities’ investments in the coming decade, in order to comply with upcoming legislation. It is also becoming increasingly important to address the water-energy nexus, namely by exploring the synergies between the water and energy sectors. This will allow the enhancement of resource optimization, reduction of energy consumption in water-related processes and, at the end of day, climate change mitigation.

Regarding climate change adaptation, utilities must invest in projects to better adapt their systems, as well as of the territory as a whole, to the impacts of droughts and floods, and ensure a resilient service. Adopting nature-based solutions, such as wetland restoration, green infrastructure, and natural filtration systems in an urban context, can help manage stormwater systems, improve water quality, and enhance ecosystem resilience.

Leveraged by artificial intelligence, the integration of smart technologies and data-driven approaches will keep revolutionizing  water management. IoT sensors, data analytics, and automation will enable real-time monitoring utilities operations. On the other hand, it is also strategic to improve IT systems performance, reliability and (cyber)security. Lastly, it is key to invest in training in R&D and innovation. To do so, utilities should focus on establishing strong partnerships with Universities, R&D centers, and technology partners to accelerate innovation in the water sector.

Your educational background offers a unique perspective on urban planning and environmental management. What advice would you give to young professionals aspiring to make a significant impact in the smart water sector?

When facing the ambitious challenges of climate change and energy and digital transition, my advice to young professionals would be think out of the box, to expand their areas of knowledge and expertise to areas beyond the water sector, and to realize the increasing importance of adopting an interdisciplinary and exosystemic approach to problem-solving. All human-related activities take place in the territory. Therefore, the survival of humankind depends strongly on the preservation of all territorial assets.

Young professionals are key to drive the change needed in the relationship between man and the Planet Earth. To do that, they should keep self-informed about the main societal challenges dominating the global scene and up to date regarding the latest trends in technologies and innovations; invest in their education and training in relevant fields such as water engineering, environmental science, data analytics, IoT technologies, just to name a few; develop a systemic thinking approach instead of a sectoral one. I would also recommend overlapping several layers of information that initially seem unrelated and try to understand which points of convergence they have.

Young professionals should question everything, should not fear to ask, or fail!