Plentiful, efficient and green; SGN chief John Morea goes gaga for gas. By Megan Darby

Each photo on the windowsill of John Morea’s office tells a story. The relevance to gas networks of a ride in Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton’s car might not be immediately apparent, but like a true utility boss, Morea turns it into an anecdote about safety. “Lewis Hamilton is well trained – we went into that car, I had a fire suit on and a helmet on.” Then, to his shock: “We were driving around and he started texting his girlfriend!” Hamilton had slowed almost to a halt at the time, Morea hastens to add, lest he drop the man in it. “He is a great guy. He was a credit to his sponsors.”

Other pictures illustrate two more of the professional passions of the chief executive of Scotia Gas Networks (SGN): community involvement and green gas. One shows a team clearing out Dartford Creek, as part of the company’s Community Action Programme. The second has Prince Charles opening a ground-breaking plant to inject renewable gas into the grid.

Morea was SGN’s first employee when it formed in 2005. He had worked his way up from a student engineer job with Southern Electric at 16 to head SSE’s electricity network business, picking up an MBA and a degree with the Open University along the way.

He lobbies for the continued role of gas networks with the zeal of the convert. “The pipes in the UK shift almost three times more energy than the electricity wires. Government policy at 2050 is to do away with the gas networks. You have to replace that.” It is the equivalent amount of energy to 600,000 wind turbines, he says. “My passionate belief is: this ain’t going to happen.”

The Energy Networks Association has made some headway with the argument that gas can be a key – and relatively cheap – player in the transition to a low-­carbon energy mix. “I think we have got to push harder,” says Morea. “There is gas everywhere. In the US, every time they drill a hole, gas comes out. In Japan, they have managed to get gas from methane hydrate on the seabed. Gas is a primary fuel. It is the lowest carbon fossil fuel.” That is before you get into the question of how much shale gas the UK can extract.

Piping this abundant resource to households is more efficient than using it to generate electricity, he says. “Generators at best are 55 per cent efficient. With gas, the leakage in the networks is pretty small. As long as you have got a decent condensing boiler at the end, you are 90 per cent efficient.”

To sell it to policymakers, however, Morea must show that gas can contribute to cutting carbon. That is where biomethane and hydrogen come in.

SGN was involved in the first UK project to inject biomethane into the grid, at Thames Water’s Didcot sewage works. Its performance has been patchy since launch in October 2010, a fact Morea lays at his partner’s door. “The plant itself worked fine – Thames Water have a problem with the sewage.”

For its part, Thames says it has conducted an extensive clean of the plant and the digesters should be up and running again “within weeks”.

SGN has also undertaken a bigger project at Poundbury, Dorset, this time in partnership with the Duchy of Cornwall and local farmers. Opened by Prince Charles in November 2012, the plant is producing enough gas to meet the annual demand of 2,100 households. The residue from digesting 41,000 tonnes of maize, grass silage and food waste each year goes back on the crops as fertiliser.

Over the next few years, SGN plans to ramp up its biomethane programme to cover 250,000 customers – 7 per cent of its base. There are 20 projects in the pipeline, including one to compress biogas produced at Crouchland Farm, Billingshurst in Sussex, and tanker it to a site where it can be injected into the grid. “Once we have got the hub there, any other supplier of biogas can come and connect into our network,” says Morea.

Another green gas venture involves hydrogen. Hydrogen created using surplus electricity – when the wind blows hard at times of low demand – can feasibly contribute up to 15 per cent of the gas grid mix, according to an industry study. The next step is looking at the economics, says Morea. “We need to look at how hydrogen would react with the pipes in our system and people’s appliances and stuff.”

While it has some work to do securing a role for the future, in the short term the company has an unprecedented eight years of certainty over its investment plan. It was the first gas distribution network to accept its settlement under regulator Ofgem’s new RIIO methodology. Morea says: “RIIO was a tough settlement, but I think we accepted it fairly quickly only because we wanted to get on and plan. We believe we can make it work.”

There is an increased emphasis on innovation under RIIO, and SGN is taking inspiration from far and near. “We are working with partners in the US, in Japan, in the water industry, to see what we can learn from them.” Magnetometer technology used in Afghanistan to find bombs has been developed to find joints in pipework. Then engineers use the roadworks equivalent of keyhole surgery – “core and vac” – to complete repairs in four or five hours that would otherwise take two days.

There is a reward scheme for employees, who can get up to £1,000 for submitting a successful idea. That is complemented with an innovation department to turn the ideas into reality.

Morea is exceptionally enthusiastic about reaching out to staff. The board holds its meetings at a different depot each month and often follows up by taking staff out to tea. Morea blogs internally at least three times a week: a blend of lighthearted updates with plenty of photos of pipes and people. In one exclamation mark-strewn missive, he is “well impressed” with the apprentices he meets and teases a colleague about his less impressive (okay, “most disgusting ever”) coffee. A more routine effort, describing a visit to a gas main replacement, still finds space for three pictures. On top of that, he writes a column in the 16-page monthly red-top SGNmail.

This relaxed and direct style comes from 30 years of experience at every level of the industry. “I have seen many changes, mostly good. I have seen the industry going from very engineering-centred to customer-centred. People underestimate the progress that has been made.”

He speaks warmly of SGN workers evacuating a block of flats in London during the riots, who stayed to finish the job even as police advised them to leave. “The energy industry I think is very underloved. It’s for us to put forward those stories, because it is the dedication of those people that keeps people safe and houses warm.”

This article first appeared in Utility Week’s print edition of 21st June 2013.

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