Watch the latest ICE Strategy Session: Covid-19 – A catalyst for innovation in the water sector?

In our latest ICE Strategy Session, the panel debated the impacts of Covid-19 on the water sector and how, despite the challenges, there are opportunities to learn and improve technology and innovation. Watch the debate again here.

The water industry’s response to the Covid 19 pandemic is offering innovations to help ease the current crisis and offer a vision for the future. That was the message from panellists at the latest ICE Strategy Session webinar.

“One of the big, big challenges that industry has got to face up to is around productivity, because inevitably there will be less money to go around after the numerous bailouts that are happening around Covid," said ICE President Paul Sheffield at the start of the panel discussion.

“If there’s less money to around but still a huge agenda of projects to deliver, then we collectively have to be pretty clever about how we deliver more for less,” he added.

“One of the big, big challenges that industry has got to face up to is around productivity, because inevitably there will be less money to go around after the numerous bailouts that are happening around Covid,” said ICE President Paul Sheffield at the start of the panel discussion.

“If there’s less money to around but still a huge agenda of projects to deliver, then we collectively have to be pretty clever about how we deliver more for less,” he added.

Watch the session again in full, below.

ICE Strategy session 23 June2020 Covid 19 A catalyst for innovation in the water sector from ICE Group on Vimeo.

Sheffield said that the eighteen water and sewerage companies covering the UK had little market competition and that more could be done, therefore, to share innovations.

“Why on earth can't they, and don't they, share best practice? Because if we can do that then we really are going to accelerate the best ideas; we can discount the worst ideas; and we can really transform the industry at a much faster pace than that has been achieved in the past. I think there's a cracking opportunity for the water sector to collaborate.”

The sector has already proven its agility in responding to the crisis with an innovative and collaborative approach, explained University of Sheffield Water Innovation Hub manager Caroline Wadsworth, in particular with regard to its contribution to unleashing potential to trace local outbreaks of the virus. “There's an enormous amount of research activity, looking at how the virus itself can be tracked through sewage,” she explained.

Collectively, efforts have been focusing on developing protocols and test procedures accurately “so that we can pinpoint outbreaks rapidly”. This will prove invaluable in aiding the approach to future containment of virus outbreaks through more local rather than widespread lockdowns, Wadsworth added.

Dr Piers Clark, Founder and Chair of consultancy Isle Utilities explained that detecting the virus in sewage was possible through identifying its inactive characteristics. “We’re not saying that sewage is a transmission risk,” he elaborated.

Compared with six weeks ago there had been advances in real time and online monitoring, particularly with tracing the virus, which was “really exciting”, said Clark. “We do know that those who are asymptomatic release it [the trace] in their faeces within three days so we know that it’s a really good measure [for tracing outbreaks].”

Clark revealed that early and advancing research now indicated that these tests were also suggesting the virus “was around a lot earlier than we thought”.

Dr Sally Watson, water and environment digital lead at consultant Mott MacDonald, said this work replicated best practice in places such as New Zealand, where the sewer network was mapped and modelled and produces real time monitoring of rainfall and overflow that generates warnings at beaches to indicate to locals whether there is a resulting drop in water quality.

“So, you can see how you can get very rapid responses and warning apps for people if that was the way you wanted to go,” she said.

UK water usage has shifted dramatically amid the Covid-19 crisis, which raises questions around future management priorities, agreed the panellists. With the global lockdown and emphasis on working at home, domestic usage has broadly increased by 20%, while industrial use has decreased by 50%, Clark noted.

Thames Water’s head of research, development and innovation, Andrea Gysin, said the dramatic shift from urban to rural would require a reprioritisation of funding and asset management.

Water demand had dropped in London, yet increased in the wider Thames Valley region, which coincided with uncharacteristically hot weather in April and May.

“We were heading for our summer peak in demand in the springtime, which was a scary time,” Gysin explained. While the water company successfully navigated that shift, there were additional consequences, not least the drop off in sewage meant less energy self-generation from sludge treatment centres. “Only three months into the [five year] regulatory period we’re talking about the fact that we may well miss our self-generation energy targets for the year,” she continued.

While there were obvious benefits from less water usage and a reduction in sewage, re-prioritisation of already allocated investments would be difficult in the current pre-planned regulated environment, said Gysin.

Regulator OFWAT had inadvertently created barriers to innovation, too, agreed the panellists, but work was continuing at pace to make real a new innovation fund to roll out cutting edge technology and new ideas more widely and rapidly.

Leakages are a key area where technology has the potential to make huge gains, not least with projects such as Pipebot.

Wadsworth explained that a prototype robotic mechanism for detecting and sensing inside water networks already exists and could lead to the rollout of low-cost, small-scale detect and repair bots, enabling water firms to meet challenging leakage repair targets.

Chief executive of non-domestic water operator MOSL, Sarah McMath, said its 1.2 million business customers account for one third of the water consumed in England, so there was a huge need to start working with customers to make leak detection and reduction much easier - adding that smart meters were vital to aiding that work.

A renewed focus on collaboration would have the greatest impact, the panel agreed, in order to avoid companies “reinventing the wheel” as well as the supply chain and academia working in silos. The Water Innovation Hub offered a great example of how academia can work with specialist technology creators, industry and the regulator to enable the rollout of cost and carbon saving ideas.

Top