Water industry told ‘collaborate to innovate’

Innovation is the 'silver bullet' for the water industry and collaboration will be key in delivering it, WRc managing director Mark Smith told delegates at last week's WRc innovation day.

In line with the theme for what was the first annual WRc Innovation day – Innovation through collaboration – Mr Smith said, “I passionately believe we need to collaborate to innovate better”. However, engendering that collaborative approach, and the change needed to drive it was the focus of the rest of the day.

Acknowledging that the sector is inherently risk-averse, he said it shouldn’t be ashamed of that because, fundamentally, the water industry is a public health and environmental protection industry. However, he said a new approach was needed as “we cannot build our way out of this”.

Yorkshire Water’s head of innovation Simon Barnes told delegates that creating change was “very, very difficult” and noted for the record that he’d yet to see a silver bullet. Key for him was company culture, and creating conditions where people can see the link between the work being done and the company values.

Anglian Water’s Steve Kaye meanwhile outlined a funnel analogy saying the more ideas you get in, the more opportunities you have to do things in a better way. The challenge, he said, came in narrowing those ideas down into a few, well-implemented projects – hence the funnel model. However, he said that Anglian was “delivering significantly more benefit through collaborative effort”.

Innovation was certainly in evidence at WRC’s offices, where delegates were taken on a tour of some of the facilities and technologies currently undergoing testing. These included the use of recycled, crushed glass rather than sand for filtering wastewater and a contactless monitor for testing the organic load of water using infrared and UV light.

The debate around innovation continued in the afternoon workshops, which saw delegates divide into four discussion groups to discuss key topics: Achieving compliance on lead in drinking water, chemical-free production of drinking water, funding for innovation and energy/resource recovery from sewage. WRc has undertaken to take the findings of each of these groups and invest time and money in turning some of the ideas into concrete outcomes.

The form these outcomes will take is as yet undefined, and with the broad range of ideas expressed that’s perhaps unsurprising. The latter discussion, dedicated to energy from waste outlined some of the current technologies available or being tested, provoked strong debate about future applications and barriers to adoption. Primary amongst these barriers was the constrictions of the five-year AMP cycle, essentially cutting off some longer-term thinking, testing and adoption.

However, members of the discussion group pointed out that the scope perhaps needs to be widened beyond a current focus on recovering energy from sludge through Anaerobic digestion, as there is potentially as much energy that could be extracted from the heat in effluent as there is in the organic content.

Ultimately, the question that seemed key to the debate was, if you had a blank sheet of paper, and the remit to capture as much energy from the water and effluent treatment process as possible, what would a water plant look like? The answer however, may be a longer time coming.

As one delegate put it, “A completely different approach is needed. It’s not just about bulldozing a plant, it’s about bulldozing your brain.”

Will Parsons

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