Encouraging innovation in the water sector

Steve Kaye, Anglian's head of R&D and a visiting professor at Imperial College, discusses the increasing importance of research and development in the water industry

Research and development (R&D) seems to have taken an upward turn over the past two years, with several Government incentives now in place – including tax credits and increased sources of funding.

In many industrial sectors, such as pharmaceuticals, R&D plays a leading role in helping organisations gain market share. The water industry tends to be different in its approach, as it is a regulated business in terms of charging customers, discharging to the environment and meeting water quality standards. Having said that, R&D still plays a key role, but it tends to drive operational and capital cost savings and reduce operational risk as opposed to commercial exploitation or licensing of new technologies. The following areas are typical R&D drivers in the UK water industry:

  • Reducing chemical usage
  • Reducing energy consumption
  • Low whole-life cost solutions in water and wastewater treatment
  • Understanding and maintaining existing assets
  • Improving operational reliability and reducing risk

Understanding the needs of internal and external customers is key to developing effective R&D programmes. Formal client groups have therefore been set up in Anglian Water, covering the areas of water, wastewater and energy. In several water and wastewater companies, energy has now become a programme in its own right – mainly resulting from the increased energy demands coupled with rising electricity prices. Further to the challenge of saving energy, there are clear opportunities to reclaim energy, for example from sewage sludge, as either heat or ultimately converting the energy to electricity. Electricity generated in this way can either be used to run the company’s own operation or be sold back to the National Grid.

Successful R&D is often a result of balancing formal and informal processes. It is important that new ideas are captured from as many sources as possible. This may involve looking to other industries for inspiration. In Anglian Water the Innovation Client Groups play a key role in assessing the attractiveness and achievability of new projects, which could be done in a variety of ways, for example balancing long- and short-term outcomes, risk and value and payback or it could be alignment with future legislation. Once projects have entered the programme the well understood critical stage gate process is adopted, taking projects through key decision points:

  • Business case
  • Feasibility
  • Pilot trials
  • Exploitation/implementation
  • Review

This approach provides a pull from the business, creating an increased level of buy-in and consequently an increased willingness from the wider business to provide resources and funding. The review stage of this process is vital and will provide knowledge and learning for future projects.

The requirements for successful innovation are not only about formal business procedures – other factors come into play including strong leadership skills and behaviours, academic and professional qualifications, networking, and above all an organisational culture that embraces innovation and creative thinking. In large organisations like Anglian Water, unique sub-cultures sometimes exist. These are often a consequence of differing incentives in particular business units. For example, in an operational environment, people are highly focused on meeting water or wastewater compliance and generally keeping the operation going.

New technology development in such areas can be a perceived risk, and support for new ideas may be challenged. In the engineering world, the driver is typically keeping capital project delivery within time, cost and quality constraints – once again innovation can be seen as a detractor from the main task.

Organisations today are often more focused on short-term goals such as improving operational efficiency, which can result in an R&D portfolio that is skewed toward the challenges of today and less about the longer-term needs of the business. In response to these challenges, Anglian Water has recently changed its innovation strategy to one of outcome focus as opposed to one of output focus.

Figure 1 shows some of the key elements for delivering successful outcomes through the R&D process. A sound technical report can often be the result of a well managed stage gate process in response to a clear business need, but sadly may be left on the shelf and never implemented to yield the obvious benefit. Alternatively, concentrating on the business outcome from the start of a project and creating a multi-disciplined delivery team will realise business benefits with far more certainty. A good example of this is the recent change in Anglian Water to using ultraviolet (UV) radiation for reducing pesticides in groundwater sources, as opposed to the conventional technique of filtration using granular activated carbon.

A team of engineers, operational scientists, operators and innovators proved substantially that the new technology was of lower whole-life cost, smaller footprint and easier to operate. Above all, there was business ownership from the start of the project and a final approval by the DWI established UV as a leading approach for the removal of pesticides from drinking water in the future.

Our relationship with the Environment Agency has also matured over the years. Dialogue is playing a key role in terms of establishing new standards for the future. Anglian Water is unique in having sensitive and slow-moving waters such as the Norfolk Broads and rivers such as the Nene and Great Ouse.

Discharge parameters, such as phosphorous, are expected to be reduced to very low levels in order to ensure good status of the aquatic ecosystem. Ongoing research in the water industry is demonstrating that there are potentially more sustainable ways of removing phosphorous compared with the conventional approach of dosing iron salts into the effluent. Developing a joint understanding with the agency in this way is seen as a positive step towards reducing the wider impacts on the environment and our society.

Over the past five years, there has been a good deal more research carried out in the area of managing underground assets. Significant capital programmes are now under way to replace and repair both water and wastewater networks. Anglian Water has researched several non-intrusive techniques for solving this problem, such as lining damaged pipes with glass reinforced plastic or epoxy coatings. This approach reduces the need to dig up and replace pipes unnecessarily.

In terms of water and wastewater treatment processes, recent years have brought us a range of small footprint solutions such as submerged aerated filters, variations of the activated sludge process and, in the area of drinking water, the emergence of compact membrane solutions.

Although these solutions have clear benefits they are often solutions of a high operational cost, brought about either by the need for high levels of aeration (in the case of activated sludge) or high water pressure in the case of membranes. The R&D challenge for the future is to develop lower pressure membrane processes and maybe to look towards anaerobic treatment as a low opex and low sludge producing wastewater treatment process.

Resources for delivering R&D projects can vary depending on the type of project. At times it may be appropriate to work directly with a contracting organisation, whereas other projects may be served better by linking up with a university research establishment. Historically, companies such as Rolls Royce have created almost seamless links with academia, enabling them to make step changes in technology such as the development of the jet engine.

The water industry is now starting to create more market led programmes of work in conjunction with universities, satisfying both business need and the requirements for academic achievement. On the other hand, projects may be better served using in-house resources. Anglian Water is currently carrying out a lot of its own research in the area of chemical reduction, for example lime dosing optimisation in the area of sewage sludge pasteurisation. Innovation is about creativity and balance.

The “bread, butter and jam” analogy is often considered. If you can demonstrate quick wins, the organisation is more likely to support you with longer-term, higher-payback projects that balance the portfolio. As with many supportive functions in organisations, R&D is continually faced with the challenge of demonstrating financial and non-financial benefits, ideally outweighing the level of R&D investment.

Typically in the water industry, a whole-life cost approach is adopted, incorporating both capital and operational cost savings, where appropriate.

As the majority of the water industry in the UK has moved more towards improving the core operating business and away from a range of growth strategies, there is clearly a better appetite for collaboration in R&D between organisations.

Business challenges are very often the same in our respective organisations and greater leverage can be achieved by jointly funding research projects. Organisations such as WRc and UKWIR are helping to focus common issues and deliver outcomes that are of benefit across the industry.

As we move forward the future of innovation in the water industry is bright. The key to success will be balance. Balancing short- and long-term needs and working with the wider industry where common issues exist. Using a combination of formal and informal processes to take ideas from conception to exploitation. Innovation is not just about technology, it is about being open towards new ideas in all aspects of our business.

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