The 11 winners of the first round Ofwat’s Innovation in Water Challenge have been announced including a Centre of Excellence for the whole water sector.

Up to £250,000 will be awarded to the bids to develop solutions to major common challenges faced by the industry.

Projects ranged from planting and restoring seagrass meadows, a scheme to turn ammonia in wastewater into green hydrogen gas to software that can monitor the degradation of wildlife habitats. Other ideas focused on preventing leaks using AI, CCTV, and unexploited optical fibre strands in telecoms networks.

“We’ve seen a really strong round of bids for the initial funds and we were significantly over subscribed – by more than five times the amount of money that was on the table for this round,” John Russell, senior director at Ofwat, told Utility Week.

There were 61 bids for the inaugural competition, which Russell said indicated the level of enthusiasm ignited by the fund.

“That spark is not just in the breadth of the projects from technology, engineering and customer behaviour projects, but also shows the spirit of collaboration we wanted to see between companies and other partners.”

In addition to the 17 English and Welsh companies, partners came from academia, not-for-profit and environmental groups, supply chain partners and the water companies in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Ireland

A Water Centre of Excellence supported by all companies was included in the list, which Russell said demonstrated the whole sector’s commitment to take the innovation story to the next chapter.

“It shows the architecture of innovation coming to life,” he said. “Given the challenges the sector faces on leakage, climate change and ambition in PR19 – we’ve always said: ‘don’t try to solve these problems 17 different ways’. This is a tangible example of the sector recognising that and of its own volition moving forward to solve some of these existential challenges.”

And the winners are:

  • The AI & Sewer Defect Analysis project will use artificial intelligence and machine learning to automatically recognise features in CCTV inspection of sewers. This will give a better understanding of sewer deterioration and reduce the cost of inspections. Project partners: Welsh Water, Scottish Water, Severn Trent, Thames, Yorkshire, and Water Research Centre. Led by United Utilities.
  • CatchmentLIFE will build bespoke software that volunteers and experts can use  to show the impacts of habitat degradation on wildlife and ecological communities. Project partners: Bristol Water, SES, Wessex, Earthwatch Europe, Environment Agency, Loughborough University, Natural Resources Wales, The River Restoration Centre, and University of Huddersfield. Led by South East.
  • Enabling Whole Life Carbon Design will deliver tools and processes to support the cultural and behavioural changes necessary to deliver low whole life carbon and cost solutions and ultimately zero carbon emissions as a water industry. Project partners: @one Alliance (comprising Anglian Water, Balfour Beatty, Barhale, MMB, Sweco, Skanska and MWH Treatment|), Welsh Water, Skanska UK, and Sweco UK. Led by Anglian.
  • Industrial Symbiosis will look at new ways waste or by-product materials from one company can be used as the raw materials for another. Project partners: International Synergies, Welsh Water, Jacobs, Severn Trent. Led by United Utilities.
  • Leak Detection using Dark Fibre will use unexploited optical fibre strands in existing telecoms cables to detect and therefore prevent leaks in water and wastewater networks. Project partners: Costain, Welsh Water, and Focus Sensors. Led by Hafren Dyfrdwy.
  • The Organics Ammonia Recovery project will recover ammonia in wastewater and turn it into green hydrogen fuel – a first for the industry.  Project partners: Anglian, Cranfield University, Organics Group, Warwick University, and Wood Group UK. Led by Northumbrian.
  • Reservoir water community monitoring for algal associated risk assessment will build on environmental DNA monitoring methodologies to detect algae in drinking water so as to improve the taste and smell. Project partners: Bristol Water, Cardiff University, United Utilities and Yorkshire. Led by Welsh Water.
  • Seagrass Seeds of Recovery will restore seagrass and improve estuaries and coastal waters by increasing biodiversity and absorbing carbon and nitrogen emissions. Project partners: Anglian, Cefas (Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science), Department of Zoology and Wadham College, University of Oxford, Environment Agency, Natural England, Project Seagrass, Salix River & Wetland Services, Swansea University and University of Essex. Led by Affinity.
  • Smarter Tanks to build a resilient network will explore how to best monitor drinking water and rainwater storage tanks using real-time monitoring and control solutions, to see if more water can be stored when needed most, such as during extended dry periods or drought.  Project partners: Aqua Civils and University of Exeter. Led by Affinity.
  • Supporting customers in vulnerable circumstances will use behavioural science to improve engagement with hard-to-reach customers and communities during planned and unplanned events, including help to manage bills and understanding which forms of communication customers prefer. Project partners: Consumer Council for Water (CCW), South East and Thames. Led by Severn Trent.
  • A partnership of many water companies will lead the delivery of UK Water Sector Innovation Centre of Excellence (CoE) – a virtual innovation accelerator hub to promote collaboration in and beyond the water sector and drive transformational innovation. Project partners: Affinity, Albion Water, Anglian, Bristol Water, Hafren Dyfrdwy, Irish Water, Northern Ireland Water, Portsmouth Water, Scottish Water, SES Water, Severn Trent Water, South East Water, South Staffordshire Water, South West Water, Southern Water, Thames Water, UK Water Industry Research Limited, United Utilities, Wessex Water, and Yorkshire Water. Led by Northumbrian Water.

Russell said the judging panel had to be of an incredibly high calibre to thoroughly stress test the bids. Any unsuccessful entrants will receive feedback and the opportunity to resubmit.

The panel was chaired by Rachel Skinner, president of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), who said: “The shortlisted entries provided a clear snapshot of the industry and its current challenges but also multiple opportunities for widespread transformation in diverse areas ranging from the urgent need for accelerated action on climate mitigation and resilience, to new ways to build value for customers as the social and economic impacts of Covid-19 play out.  They also highlighted huge potential for onward cross-sector learning and collaboration that will now be explored in detail.”

The next round will kick off in the autumn and Russell said he wanted to encourage the collaboration to mature further and would welcome more entries related to customer facing projects. “There are big issues to do with demand management and getting customers to think about what they put into the water environment as well as what they take out so it would be good to see more on that.”

The main innovation competition opens in May with entries invited until June.

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