Blog: change at the top

In her news editor’s blog for Utility Week, Lois Vallely rounds up some of the big stories of the week.

This week, I would like to draw your attention to the latest shock story to have rocked the Utility Week news desk.

Southern Water chief executive Matthew Wright has announced he will stand down next year, after more than six years at the helm of the company.

Wright is the third major resignation from the water sector, and the latest in a long line of changes at the top, since Thames Water chief executive Martin Baggs announced in November 2015 that he would quit at the end of this year. Luis Garcia (Bristol Water boss) then made known his intention to leave in June.

Wright has been circumspect about his motivation for leaving. In fact, in his statement, he said nothing on the matter. Garcia, too, was silent about his reasons. Baggs said at the time of his announcement that he would be “looking for new challenges”.

Is it mere coincidence that these water leaders will all be gone before the market opens? The cynical side of me can’t help thinking it is not (analysis to follow).

Something in the water

It has now been more than a year since United Utilities’ dreaded cryptosporidium outbreak incident, and still we have heard nothing from the Drinking Water Executive about its investigation. But cryptosporidium isn’t the only potentially harmful substance which water companies are fighting to keep out of the water.

This week, the Environmental Audit Committee called for an outright ban on plastic microbeads from cosmetic products. However, microbeads are not the only source of microplastic pollution, and MPs also are also urging water companies to work with government and he Environment Agency to come up with solutions to the wider problem.

Prevention at source would be the easiest, cheapest and “most viable” option. But that would involve making the public listen – not always the easiest of tasks.

There are no specifically designed sewage treatment processes to capture very small particles of plastic, and MPs insist that effective waste and water sewage treatment processes by water companies could provide part of the solution.

This is an issue which must be addressed quickly. Evidence suggests microplastic pollution causes “significant harm” to the marine environment, and is even more damaging than larger pieces of plastic because it is more likely to be eaten by wildlife.

Meanwhile, Anglian Water has warned that setting up metaldehyde treatment for drinking water would be “hugely costly and unsustainable”, increasing customer bills by 21 per cent.

Metaldehyde is commonly used as a pesticide against slugs, snails and other gastropods. It is widely used in agriculture. The potentially harmful pellets can find their way into drains and watercourses either directly during application or as a result of run-off during prolonged rainfall.

But Anglian doesn’t want the burden to fall entirely on the shoulders of the water sector, and has called for more support from the farming sector, water sector regulators and pesticide manufacturers to find the best solution overall.

Death of coal

This week the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy released figures which show that coal generation hit rock bottom in May this year. According to the Department, coal’s share of total output in the second quarter fell to a mere 6.8 per cent – the lowest level in 21 years.

It seems like déjà vu. In May, Utility Week ran a similar story from the previous set of statistics, stating that coal-fired generation fell by around 50 per cent in the first quarter of 2016.

Coal may be just about clinging on, but these figures are indicative of its imminent extinction.

Meanwhile, as the government ums-and-ahs about whether or not it should proceed with the hideously expensive Hinkley Point C nuclear project, the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit has come out and said alternatives are possible and would work out cheaper – no surprise, considering Hinkley is turning into one of the most expensive objects on Earth.

What are these alternatives? Well… anything really. Offshore wind, demand-side response, gas-fired power, interconnectors, energy efficiency, or all of the above – which the ECIU estimates could save the UK as much as £1 billion per year.

Bees or Baize?

Finally, after months of speculation and debate, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has officially confirmed that BEIS is pronounced ‘baize’.