‘Sharing economy’ model mooted for utilities as need for reuse heightens

Shared ownership of infrastructure between utility companies could deliver real benefits in securing future materials supply, given the difficulties of recovering decommissioned equipment for recycling and reuse.

This is one of the key findings to come out of a report about materials security risks from the Knowledge Transfer Network’s Material Security Special Interest Group, which has investigated potential impacts of restricted materials supply in key market sectors.

There is growing interest among utility suppliers to explore innovation opportunities in this field – today representatives from the oil and gas industries have gathered in Aberdeen, Scotland, to debate reuse and circular economy-led strategies for decommissioning with waste experts at an event co-hosted by Decom North Sea and Zero Waste Scotland.

One of the issues with recycling materials from this sector is the cost of recovery from underground, remote or off-shore locations. Some of the utility systems employed have embedded significant quantities of valuable materials – the electricity distribution system for instance contains high quantities of copper and aluminium.

According to the study, it is important that these systems are designed to facilitate the recovery and optimum reuse of materials so that demand for primary resources and the carbon footprint of the production of these metals can be minimised.

However in the case of certain utilities such as water, sewage and rail, reuse presents a formidable challenge as significant parts of the existing infrastructure can be more than 100 years old and originally designed for different operating conditions.

“It may be difficult to reuse the entire system design for one specific utility, but it may be possible to reuse part of the infrastructure (trench, tunnel, pipeline, routing),” the report points out.

Likewise opportunities for remanufacture are also limited, but if good design principles were applied to infrastructural systems from the start, this could accommodate remanufacturing and reuse of some components.

The study notes supply of utility services is a complex issue in the UK. “In the past service providers tended to specialise in the delivery of only one utility, but some new business models are evolving which might allow more efficient use of not only administrative services but also the supporting infrastructure.”

One example of such a model could be shared ownership of common infrastructure, such as tunnels. Lessons could also be learned from research projects such as Mapping the Underworld and designs for utility systems that facilitate inspection, management and repairs.

Looking ahead to the future, the study highlights the changing nature of utilities supply – in particular, the evolution from hard-wired communication to digital systems and the trend towards more distributed generation of electricity. These developments will likely impact on future infrastructure requirements and material risk assessments may need to change as a result.

Maxine Perella

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