By BlueTech Research Chief Executive Paul O’Callaghan

The largest tranche of external innovation funding ever injected into the UK water sector, representing £36M, has just been awarded to nine projects via the Ofwat Water Breakthrough Challenge. A total of 23 entries were submitted, of which 17 were carried forward for detailed review.

Ofwat had identified five key innovation goals that these projects were to address.

1. Responding and adapting to climate change, including how to meet the sector’s ambition of net-zero emissions.

2. Restoring and improving the ecological status of our water environments, protecting current and future customers from the impacts of extreme weather and pollution.

3. Understanding long-term operational resilience and infrastructure risks to customers and the environment, finding solutions to mitigate these in sustainable and efficient ways.

4. Testing new ways of conducting core activities to deliver wider public value.

5. Exploring the opportunities associated with open data, stimulating innovation and collaboration, for example, encouraging new business models and service offerings that benefit customers, including those in vulnerable circumstances.

The entire process was excellently run, from start to finish, by Nesta who ran this innovation competition on behalf of Ofwat. It was the best run competition I have ever participated in.

I had the privilege of being part of a panel of judges that together with the technical reviewers, helped to review and provide recommendations to Ofwat on these projects. While the quality of the entries was exceptionally high, what was perhaps even more striking was the degree of collaboration that this has spurred on.

I think this has been an early surprise win from this competition. It is truly bringing water utilities together in all sorts of new ways, and not only UK water utilities, there are also collaborations with utilities in Australia, such was with South East Water, and the USA and Canada.

The private sector and the supply chain are also involved, with technology providers, consulting engineers and research institutes, all forming the consortiums that lead these projects. One might dub it radical collaboration, which is truly needed to achieve breakthrough innovation and is the theme for BlueTech Forum 2022: Radical Collaboration for Regeneration. We hope to be able to feature and profile many of these projects in our event.

Breakthrough versus business as usual

One of the areas that occupied the minds of the judges, was whether these projects could or would proceed, in a business as usual scenario. Some judges with utility experience were keen to point out that funding for innovation is scarce in a water utility under a ‘business as usual’ scenario.

Nevertheless, there were certain projects where it was deemed that the private sector really should be driving these innovations either as sustaining innovation, incremental improvements or because there was a strong commercial case to do so. The focus of the Ofwat fund was therefore to focus as much as possible on enabling projects to take place that, in the absence of this fund, would not be possible.

An investment portfolio and value driven mindset was evident

The judges were also very prudent in the award . The financials were carefully reviewed to weigh up the total cost of the project against its potential impact. This value driven approach was heartening to see, as these funds are precious and every pound should deliver value to the consumer ultimately and that is what will be the hallmark of this fund. The judges were not risk averse and in fact were willing to fund projects that were risky. Nevertheless the amounts proposed and the stage gates that would be applied to the release of funding were carefully scrutinised.

Out of the nine projects that were funded, I would like to highlight a few

Triple Carbon Reduction – led by Anglian Water: £3.5M

The project is developed in partnership with OxyMem, Element Energy Ltd, Jacobs, Cranfield University, University of East Anglia, Brunel University and Severn Trent, Scottish Water, Northern Ireland Water and United Utilities and received £3.5M.

What is striking about this, is that they are producing hydrogen by splitting water, using the hydrogen for energy, and then using the oxygen to run an Oxymem MABR to help reduce energy and nitrous oxide emissions. The combination of hydrogen production and the use of the pure oxygen produced to run an MABR is very novel and has not been done before. It is ambitious and creative.

Water neutrality at NAV sites – led by Affinity Water: £2.9M

This project is led by Affinity Water and is developed in partnership with companies in the supply chain including Hydraloop, for grey water re-use, Propelair air-flush toilets and SDS Ltd for Rainwater Re-use.

What is striking, is the moon-shot goal to build 3,000 homes that are water neutral. Yes, Water Neutral. We have heard all about carbon neutrality, but could a water utility, truly embrace water neutrality for new developments?

Transforming the energy balance of wastewater treatment- led by Thames Water: £6M.

This project is developed in partnership with with the University of South Wales, Dwr Cyrmu Welsh Water, South West Water, United Utilities, Scottish Water, Yorkshire Water and Northumbrian Water.

This was one of the strongest applications I reviewed and it will quite likely to lead to a valuable outcome. The project centres around testing two different low temperature anaerobic technologies (also referred to as cold anaerobic), one is the NVP Technology, that was piloted in Wales and it also builds upon work done with a Waterleau mobile Cold Anaerobic system. They have strong academic partners on board, a great consortium of water utilities and also good engagement with multiple players in the supply chain. Watch this space, this could be move the needle.

Alternative approaches to phosphorus removal on rural wastewater treatment works – led by United Utilities

The project is developed in partnership with Utilities, Southern Water, Thames Water, University of Portsmouth, Power & Water, Evergreen, Hydro Industries, Kolina

This project, like many, is multi-pronged. A key over-arching goal, is to look at alternatives to ferric based coagulant salts as a way to remove phosphorus, to remove the dependency on the supply chain and also to reduce discharge of these chemicals into sewage sludges. Recently, restrictions in the supply chain led to certain utilities getting a dispensation from the Environment Agency on phosphorus consents due to the challenges in the supply chain due to a shortage of trucks on the road! The focus is particularly on rural works and would help reduce transportation of coagulants to these sites with an associated saving in carbon footprint.

First they plan to run side by side testing with four different electrocoagulation units to really dig into the phosphorus removal ability of these technologies. A great idea, as trying to cross compare EC technologies is something of a dark art, and it builds upon work done previously by Southern Water, with one EC technology. Secondly, they plan to run tests with various natural coagulants, for example materials such as chitosan. Thirdly, they plan to establish test protocols that can be used in the future to cross compare reactive media in a standardised way.

Safe Smart Systems – Embedding resilience for the future through automation and artificial intelligence – led by Anglian Water: £7.5M

The partners on this project include Jacobs, Skanska, Imperial College, Airbus Defence and Space, Microsoft and the University of Sheffield, and fellow water companies South West Water, Portsmouth Water and Affinity Water.

This project represented one of the highest values awarded, in the amount of £7.5M and was also one of the ones that stimulated some of the greatest levels of discussion. It is ambitious in its vision as is clear in the project description:

“The project will use artificial intelligence and mathematical optimisation to improve long-term operational resilience in the face of climate change and rapid population growth. It will identify, predict, and manage vulnerabilities to reduce leakage, interruptions, and pressure issues across the whole water cycle. Safe Smart Systems focuses on the first steps to achieve autonomous control in water systems across the UK.”.

There were several digital projects in the mix and this was one of the ones that made it through. There were also business model innovations, such as flexible local water supply schemes pilot led by Bristol Water which could provide particularly good value to the fund if the £620,000 awarded leads to new ways to integrate flexible supply models that balance water use from different sources at different times to optimise supply.