In 2015/16, we invested nearly £2.7 million in innovation projects under the Network Innovation Allowance. We completed 14 projects, got 32 underway and there were 41 new suggestions under review.
Below, we have set out what we spent in 2015/16 in each area, and how this compared to our expectations.
As the figures show, investment was largely in line with predictions, with the exception of ‘safety and environment.’ There will be increased focus on this area going forward, with additional project spend in 2016/17.
We recently commissioned a special animation to share everything that’s happening in the division. To watch the film, click here.
- Paw Patrol
Dogs’ exceptional sense of smell has been used successfully in sectors ranging from crime prevention to petrochemicals, but never before in the gas industry.
We’ve launched a project to see if dogs can be trained to locate gas leaks, helping to speed up repairs and reduce the need for our engineers to dig exploratory holes in the road.
So far, we’ve carried out a series of controlled trials to see if a trained sniffer dog can detect items scented with gas. This ‘double blind’ test was very successful, despite challenging weather conditions, giving us confidence that the concept is sound.
We are now preparing for a second phase trial. This will involve laying gas pipes at varying depths, to see how the dog performs compared to a human engineer armed with the latest technology.
- Stepping on the gas
Natural gas can be used to power vehicles, providing a cleaner, greener fuel alternative to petrol and diesel.
We’re trialling two natural gas vehicles over a 12 month period. The first of these, a transit van, is already being put through its paces by our Measurement Technicians, who map our pipe assets.
A larger flatbed truck, which we use to carry our roadworks barriers, will be hitting the road soon.
Trackers in the vehicles measure key stats such as fuel consumption, mileage and emissions in a variety of different driving conditions. We’ll be obtaining the same data from our diesel powered vehicles too, to provide a point of comparison.
Separately, we’re also working with Leeds City Council on a project to build the UK’s largest CNG refuelling station. If the van trial proves successful, we could expand our natural gas fleet in the future, and make regular use of the refuelling station.
- Carbon capture through mineralisation
We’re working with a Cambridge start-up company to explore a new way of capturing the carbon from gas such as shale or biomethane.
The process sees gas put through a long tube, known as a bubble column reactor, to extract the carbon dioxide, leaving behind hydrogen.
Magnesium hydroxide is added to the extracted carbon dioxide, transforming it into a white solid material called magnesium carbonate, which has a variety of potential applications. There is scope to use it as a building material, due to its excellent fire retardant properties, or to make tyres with low rolling resistance.
Initial lab tests have been successful, and we are now moving to a second stage trial, which will explore the potential commercial market for the magnesium carbonate by-product.
- Driving forward with McClaren
The company behind a world-beating Formula 1 racing team and one of the world’s biggest auditors may appear to have little in common with a gas distributor from the north of England.
But a new collaborative partnership is proving otherwise.
We’ve teamed up with McLaren and KPMG to gain new business insights from these two behemoths of the racing track and boardroom.
The project is allowing us to tap into the high performance culture, sophisticated analytics and business acumen of both companies.
Senior colleagues from both businesses have worked with us on a 12 week project to see how we can improve our approach to asset management and make smarter investment decisions about our network.
We have completed an initial project focused on asset investment in three areas of the business, and are now embarking on a follow-up initiative exploring areas such as optimising the cost of booking gas from off-take sites and sensitivity analysis.
- A national customer database – exploring the potential
Customer service has come on leaps and bounds in the utility sector, but the industry still faces a widening gap between customer expectations and delivery.
One of the biggest barriers is data: we simply don’t have enough of it, preventing us from giving customers the personalised support they demand.
We’ve teamed up with our fellow utility companies, innovation strategy specialists Fahrenheit 212, and the Energy Innovation Centre, to explore the feasibility of a shared, UK customer database.
An initial study has shown that there is an appetite among customers and utility providers for a national database, and that the approach is feasible from a regulatory and technical point of view. There are, however, still some question marks about utility companies’ willingness to share data.
The project is now moving to a second stage, which will develop a detailed business case and a solution blueprint.
- No longer stumped by stubs
Gas distributors are tasked with decommissioning all small diameter gas pipes close to buildings, for safety reasons, by 2032.
Previous techniques for capping off these pipes left a short ‘stub’ of live pipe, where the small pipe abutted a larger diameter main.
This presented the dilemma of potentially having to dig up these stubs, at great expense and public inconvenience.
Together with our supplier, we’ve refined the legacy technique, to cap off a pipe without leaving a pesky stub.
After an extensive development and trial phase, the improved process is now being used extensively across our region.
The approach is expected to deliver savings of around £4 million and we’ll be sharing the learnings with the wider industry.
- Tackling water ingress
When water finds its way into our network, due to flooding or a burst water main, it can often take days to remove, leading to major disruption for customers.
Working with a specialist supplier, we have developed a faster way of tackling water ingress. The process uses a remote camera which is sent down pipes to spot water, and simultaneously pump it out.
The initial idea and prototype was developed by our very own Rob Arthur, an NGN network technician who did much of the initial work in the garage at home.
The technology underwent successful field trials in 2015, and has since been used in several live water ingress incidents, including a hugely challenging incident in Consett, County Durham.
- Giving old pipes a new lease of life
We’re big fans of a pipe renewal process known as ‘roll-down’ in which a new plastic pipe is reduced in size so it can be inserted into an old pipe, then expanded to form a tight lining.
The technique gives the old pipe a new lease of life, avoiding the disruption of having to dig large open trenches in the highway to replace it entirely.
Unfortunately, the roll-down process is expensive, requiring a large rig to be hired and operated on site. For smaller jobs, it’s simply cost prohibitive.
We’ve teamed up with our pipe supplier, Radius Systems, to see if they can provide a steady supply of pre-rolled pipe, so we can use this valuable technique more frequently.
Radius Systems began adapting its production process in February 2016. Work is progressing well, and we hope to start field trials of the pre-rolled pipe towards the end of 2016.
- Listening for leaks
We’ve recently finished trials of advanced technology called Acoustek, which can listen for gas leaks.
The equipment comprises a probe and microphone which can send a sound wave 500 metres down a pipe. When the sound wave encounters an anomaly such as a leak of blockage, it bounces back, producing a sound graph that locates the problem.
The trials have been successful, and we are now entering the final stage of the project, which will involve putting the finishing touches to the prototype.
- Renewing pipes for high rise buildings
Trials of a new pipe lining technique for steel ‘riser’ pipes serving multi-occupancy buildings have been completed.
Replacing these pipes is very challenging and disruptive for residents, and usually involves strapping new, unsightly pipes to the exterior of buildings. Refurbishing the old pipes is a more practical way to go.
We worked with our fellow gas distributors on the trials, and a final report is now being produced, which will help gas distributors decide on their approach in the future.
- New methods to pre-heat gas
Before we can transport gas safely to homes and businesses, we have to reduce its pressure. This can cause the gas to freeze, requiring us to heat it up – a process known as pre-heating.
Traditional pre-heating units tend to be highly energy intensive. We are putting a number of types of heating units through their paces, to find less resource intensive, costly ways of carrying out this task.
Data is now being shared in real time, so that the whole industry can learn from the trial, with a full report and recommendations due by the end of 2017.
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