Farmland water “battery” storage and leak-detecting broadband cables among winners in Ofwat innovation competition
Farmers could soon be reimbursed for creating water storage ponds or water “batteries” as part of an innovative drought-prevention project that has received funding (on 16 May) from Ofwat’s Innovation Fund. With droughts affecting the UK for much of last summer, the project, from Westcountry Rivers Trust and South West Water, will not only contribute to better hydrated wetlands, woodlands and fields, but can help farms manage water demand through dry weather, as well as boost aquatic biodiversity.
The project is one of 16 solutions being awarded a share of £40 million in the water regulator’s latest innovation competition – the Water Breakthrough Challenge.
The initiative will work with farmers to create stores of water – both in soil “sponges” as well as lakes and ponds – that can be “re-charged” through wet weather, then drawn on through ever-more common dry seasons, to the benefit of either the farmers themselves, or local communities. These water “batteries” could form the basis of a smart water grid, improving the resilience of the water supply in the wake of climate change – in the same way solar batteries in homes store excess electricity that can be sold back to the National Grid.
The competition is also recognising a solution that adapts ground-stability monitoring technology to tackle leakage across England and Wales – a challenge which currently equates to the loss of over three billion litres of water a day. The project will use the existing network of fibre-optic cables (like those that host broadband) to report on minute changes in vibration patterns. This process, which is already used to monitor ground stability as part of the rail network, can also indicate even the smallest loss of water to catch leaks early. This technique is cheaper and more environmentally-friendly than current monitoring practices.
The winners also include the creation of the UK’s first ever, full-scale, carbon-neutral wastewater works. This state-of-the-art experiment from Severn Trent will bring together cutting-edge carbon-reduction technology for wastewater and test it at scale, pushing the limits to prove how the sector can slash its environmental impact – one of the core goals of this pocket of Ofwat’s funding. The project will integrate several promising retrofittable technologies in an existing urban wastewater treatment plant and create a data copy of all processes (‘digital twin’) to monitor impact.
The Water Breakthrough Challenge aimed to encourage initiatives that help to tackle the biggest challenges facing the water sector, such as achieving net zero, protecting natural ecosystems and reducing leakage, as well as delivering value to society.
Previous rounds of the competition have already seen numerous innovative projects win funding for their potential to benefit customers, society and the environment through solutions that introduce rainwater storage systems to local communities and minimise water demand in new building projects.
Dr. Laurence Couldrick, CEO, Westcountry Rivers Trust said:
“Restoring natural sponges such as healthy soils, woodlands and wetlands can make a huge difference to agricultural water availability during dry seasons, but the creation of additional on-demand storage has even more potential. Just like we might use a battery to capture solar power, and either use it ourselves or sell it back into the grid as needed, trapping and maintaining additional supplies of water on farms truly has potential to combat the effects of drought on an essential British industry – creating a smart water grid that can help farmers and the local communities.”
David Black, CEO, Ofwat said:
“The water sector has faced mounting pressure over systemic challenges related to the environment and society, while the climate around us continues to drastically change shape. That’s why we’re funding ground-breaking innovations with potential to help us save and reuse water and wastewater products, while supporting wider society.”
The Water Breakthrough Challenge is part of a series of competitions from Ofwat, run by Challenge Works with Arup and Isle Utilities, designed to drive innovation and collaboration in the sector to benefit individuals, society and the environment.
More information about the winners of the Water Breakthrough Challenge can be found here: https://waterinnovation.challenges.org/winners/.
A full list of the winners is included below.
The 11 winners of the Water Breakthrough Challenge 3 Catalyst Stream
- Artificial intelligence for algal monitoring – led by Dwr Cymru Welsh Water – £385,159
Ensuring drinking water is safe to drink requires constant monitoring and prediction of risk. This is true for the water quality risks associated with algae and cyanobacteria e.g., taste and odour compounds which are predicted to increase with frequency and intensity with climate change. Traditional algal monitoring is time consuming, resource intensive and does not provide sufficient data for predictive modelling of algal risks. This project will use artificial intelligence (AI) to transform algal monitoring into a high-throughput, high-accuracy laboratory or field-based process for a fraction of the cost, allowing better risk prediction enabling water companies to take earlier, more cost effective and targeted actions.
- Climate Resilience Demonstrator (CReDo) – Extreme Heat Scenario– led by Anglian Water Services – £913,029
The effect of extreme heat on water sector asset failure and the cascade failure of connected critical utility infrastructure, such as power, telecoms and transport, is uncertain. This project aims to improve the water sector’s understanding of the impact of extreme heat on assets through development of innovative Probabilistic Asset Failure Models and an Extreme Heat Projection Module to forecast future events. Through incorporation with the Climate Resilience Demonstrator digital twin, this will lead to informed targeted decision making on strategic cross-sector investment to ensure water supply and sewerage services remain resilient in the face of a changing climate.
- Dark Fibre 2 – led by Severn Trent Water – £1,332,205
By 2030 the water industry must reduce leakage by 1 billion litres/day to ensure future water supplies. This requires step change innovation that is more accurate and affordable than current leak detection tools. We can deliver this by using the fibre-optic cables already adjacent to water mains as leak sensors. We demonstrated this concept in the first catalyst funding round (Dark Fibre 1). This project, Dark Fibre 2, builds on this work to solve remaining challenges, prove at scale and build industry confidence. We will then bring this to market to enable deep reductions in leakage whilst keeping customers’ bills low.
- Hydro Powered Concentric Smart Meter– led by Northumbrian Water – £874,954
Climate change is driving the need to conserve water as a key resource. Current concentric water meters can only provide very basic and occasional information as they are constrained by the limits of battery power. This project seeks to overcome this by using the flow of water to provide limitless power to the meter. This enables live, rich, data to be provided to the consumer and to utilities, enabling action to reduce consumption and prevent leaks. In addition to saving water, further sustainability benefits will arise from longer meter lifespans, reduced maintenance, and the elimination of environmentally harmful batteries.
- The world’s first Ecological Digital Twin– led by Anglian Water Services – £1,200,000
This partnership project will develop an ecological digital twin of one of Norfolk’s iconic chalk streams, the River Stiffkey. Our digital twin will turbo-charge the sector’s response to river water quality to meet the evolving needs of customers, wider society and the environment. It will offer the ability to scale solutions to a major issue affecting customers and the environment now and in the long term, enabling new ideas and ways of working with partners from a broad range of sectors and perspectives. Taking an open approach, our project will generate learning for the benefit of all.
- Universal access point for water (UAP4W) – led by SES Water – £224,010
Water companies in England and Wales have a challenging target to halve water leakage by 2050. In order to do this, they need an accurate understanding of the condition of the water mains and be able to carry out inspections and repairs without the need for expensive and disruptive excavations. This project will design a universal access point for water, which would provide a standardised entry point for pressurised water pipes. The access point will then be used for inserting cameras, leak location arrays, repair solutions, autonomous robotic solutions, and a host of other devices.
- Using science and nature to end sewer misery – led by Northumbrian Water Limited – £939,377
Our innovation journey started by looking at novel ways to tackle pollution events that are due to tree roots and the blockages they cause. Together we have scientifically proven that we can repel tree roots away from the sewer network, with a coating that doesn’t affect tree growth. Our development could define the core activities of the future plus aid long term resilience of the network with a game changing approach to pollution reduction. The innovative Root Defender coating will apply to the existing network, i.e. anywhere that is affected by the invasion of tree roots, thus providing a long-term solution to reducing pollution events.
- Water efficiency in faith and diverse communities – led by South Staffordshire Water Plc – £270,000
The project seeks to establish a deeper understanding on how water is used and valued in different faiths and cultures. The aim is to develop an evidence-based comprehensive water efficiency engagement and support framework which water companies can adopt in the future. The project brings together a range of experts, academics, and faith groups to develop and introduce new bespoke water saving interventions and behaviour change campaigns linked to faith and culture. This could lead to significant environmental and social benefits, such as reducing per capita consumption for water, building public trust and value, as well as supporting hard to reach vulnerable customers by opening new channels of engagement and communication.
- Water industry printfrastructure (WIP) – led by United Utilities – £1,543.610
As technology for concrete and polymer printing has developed, so too have the opportunities for adoption within the water industry, particularly with regard to bespoke infrastructure designs. Our partnership takes experience from current working practices in the rail industry and learnings from academia, and converts these to actionable, operational demonstrations for the industry. With the ever increasing requirement to provide more detailed, unique and often resource intensive solutions, we believe we have a toolbox of options that will help the water industry and its customers plan and realise a more sustainable future for the implementation and maintenance of infrastructure assets.
- Water Net Gain – led by South West Water Limited – £999,800
Water Net Gain is a catchment-scale approach whereby farmers are paid to store water on their land. Restoring natural sponges, like healthy soils, woodlands and wetlands, can passively contribute water to summer base flows, but the creation of additional smart ponds and lakes, can be used for farm demand management or active releasing flows during droughts. The impact of this distributive ecologically connected water bank, released to the river during droughts, dilutes residual pollution not managed through current agricultural water quality incentivisation schemes. Alongside water purification, water retention solutions are designed to provide additional flood protection and aquatic biodiversity benefits.
- Water Literacy – led by Northumbrian Water – £864,484.000
Water is significantly undervalued and arguably should be considered as valuable as oil or carbon. This limited public understanding of the systems involved in bringing water from source to use can result in inefficient use and pressures on water supplies. We quickly need to raise the awareness of the value of water and connect society’s water use to the environment and its role in reducing the impacts of climate change. The Water Literacy Programme is an accredited learning experience delivered across all aspects of the community. It provides citizens with greater awareness and understanding of the systems involved and techniques to empower positive behaviour changes at home, in the workplace or in their community as well as signposting to further learning around water and climate change.
The five winners of the Water Breakthrough Challenge 3 Transform Stream
- Biopolymers in the circular economy (BICE) – led by United Utilities – £6,149,362
Biopolymers provide water companies and customers with the opportunity to supply fully sustainable raw materials for the production of several high value products. The production and marketing of biopolymers from wastewater and sludge opens up opportunities to realise several routes to circular economies. It also supports our industry in achieving Net Zero Carbon by 2030 by reducing our needs for manufactured polymers which we use in daily operational activities. Biopolymers are produced naturally by bacteria in wastewater treatment. If this material can be extracted it could be used instead of procuring chemicals across multiple industries.
- Designer liner – led by Yorkshire Water – £3,251,283
Water pipes are often underground and at mercy of the elements – meaning that they are prone to leaks and bursts. Repairing and replacing water pipes is costly, so one way to reduce issues and prolong the lifespan of a pipe is to line it and add an extra layer of protection. Pipe lining is 50% cheaper than more traditional methods, it generates less carbon and reduces disruption for customers because there’s less need to dig up the road.
Water companies, led by Yorkshire Water, will collaborate to develop a lining solution that is fit for a 21st century water network and complements other technologies, like smart networks and devices.
- Mainstreaming nature-based solutions to deliver greater value – led by United Utilities – £8,028,022
Nature-based solutions (NBS) have the potential to provide multiple socio-economic and environmental benefits by tackling flooding, drought and water quality issues at landscape scale. This transformational programme of work brings together multi-sectorial expertise and leadership to collaboratively create and test new solutions to remove these barriers through real-life case studies and facilitate and enable transition of nature-based solutions into business-as-usual to deliver greater value for customers, society, environment.
- Net Zero Hub– led by Severn Trent Water – £10,000,000
This ground-breaking project, universally supported by UK and Irish water companies plus international support from Aarhus Vand and Melbourne Water will transform a large, carbon intensive Wastewater Treatment Plant into the world’s first retro-fit carbon neutral site. Innovative suppliers are developing technologies to reduce, remove and avoid carbon. Our plan is to integrate the most promising technologies on one site for the first time – creating the ‘Net-Zero hub’ – trialing them at scale to deliver a blueprint for water companies to retro-fit their wastewater treatment plants to achieve their stretching 2030 Net-Zero commitments. This bid covers the most innovative technology to target our biggest emissions.
- Stream – led by Northumbrian Water – £3,973,205
Stream will unlock the potential of water data to benefit customers, society, and the environment. Stream will put in place technology and processes to remove the barriers to opening up and sharing water company data. The demand for transparency and openness has never been greater and we’ve built a strong team to deliver this quickly and efficiently. Our partners bring great experience and learning from having done this in other sectors such as banking and energy. Stream is not just focused on a single issue but will support hundreds of future data projects. We have many tough challenges in the sector, and we need to use our data to work with many groups and organisations because the challenges and solutions don’t stop at water company boundaries. Being able to collaborate around data is a key ingredient to drive innovation and improve sector performance.