Innovation is limited to keeping up with water quality and leakage standards while long-term issues are put on the back burner, said Dr Duncan Thomas of PREST, Manchester Business School, as he outlined the results of a research study entitled “Barriers to Innovation in the UK Water Industry”

“Energy bills in the water sector are huge – they’re one of the biggest energy users in the country – so you’d think that would be a major issue for them. But the incentives are much, much lower for energy usage innovations than they are for just following the regulations,” he told edie.

“Work on longer-term projects cutting energy costs which in any other sector would have a major commercial pay-off seems to be largely discretionary in the water industry,” he said.

Speaking at the IWEX water trade show, part of Sustainabilitylive!, he identified the main reason for the UK water industry’s failure to cut energy use in the high price of water.

“The price of water in this country means that they always make money. The incentive structure is skewed and that’s the fault of the way that the policy, privatisation and the regulation system have been set up. That could be changed very easily. But that’s the problem – they make enough money already,” he said.

Dr Thomas was careful to point out that while the research study was comprehensive, it represented a limited sample as it was based on the views of around 100 individuals within the UK.

The obligation on water companies to produce 25-year resource management plans should help extend the industry’s time horizons for innovation, he added.

But the basic problem is that companies in the water sector do not need to innovate to survive. “Sectors that don’t innovate don’t need to.

“Water industry actors might not even consider innovating if it’s not to meet current regulations and pre-empt future regulatory changes.”

“Which means that issues to do with climate change, to do with wider societal issues, are left out.”

Goska Romanowicz

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