As part of our Countdown to COP series, Utility Week speaks to the chief executive of Thames Water about “poo power”, unlocking the power of biomethane and why the industry cannot stand idle while solutions are sought for eliminating process emissions.


What do you want to hear from the conference?

I’ll answer that in two parts, from a general perspective and from a UK water industry perspective.

Generally, I’d like to hear more on how we’re going to work together across the world and in our own countries and industries to leave a positive legacy. It would be great to see coordinated ambitions across sectors and borders. And, I’m hoping everyone will be clear around what that looks like in practice with tangible actions and outcomes. I’d also like to hear about how we’ll measure success along the way, with an understanding of what will happen at each stage if our targets are not being reached.

From a UK water industry perspective, we’re experiencing first-hand the devastating impacts of climate change. Over the past year, we’ve seen record levels of heavy rainfall on numerous occasions in London and the Thames Valley. These have resulted in flooding to people’s homes and businesses. Alongside this, we also experience periods of drought and live in an area that is very water stressed. So, it’s imperative that we come together with all the parties involved in flood risk planning, drought planning, and beyond to build robust plans for the future.

What should the legacy of COP26 be?

I’m passionate about leaving a positive legacy for future generations. At Thames Water, we’ve inherited an incredible sewerage system and water network due to the hard work and efforts of Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Victorians. While it’s now ageing and we need to take steps to bring it up to date, this doesn’t detract from the amazing work our ancestors did, that have had long lasting positive impact. We have a responsibility to do something similar – taking action now for future generations to benefit.

It’s clear that climate change is reaching a tipping point – we must take the opportunity to protect our world for our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. What comes out of COP26 will help define our future.

It’s time to set aside differences, step up and commit to working together to make the necessary changes to protect our planet. I want my descendants to look back on this moment and say: “That’s the moment that changed everything. Individuals from across the world with different backgrounds, cultures and viewpoints came together, agreed what was needed and took collective action to save our planet.”

Is your company actively participating in COP26?

For many years, we’ve been committed to both mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change. We are actively supporting the COP26 Get Nature Positive initiative. This puts important focus on stopping the degradation of nature and depletion of biodiversity – looking after biodiversity is really important to us at Thames and we have a commitment to increase the biodiversity on our sites.

In addition, we’re supporting events in the lead up to the conference. For example, we’re supporting the UK Corporate Leaders Group to showcase business leadership on climate action before, during and after COP26. We’re also working with WaterAid to encourage students to have their say at COP26 by creating artwork that expresses their views on climate change.

Our commitment to climate change mitigation can also be seen through some of the important letters we’ve signed and supported, including the Green Alliance/Aldersgate Group letter to Kwasi Kwarteng at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. This urges the government to follow the Sixth Carbon Budget’s advice by committing to the full decarbonisation of UK electricity generation by 2035. Alongside this, we’ve also given our support for the We Mean Business Coalition letter to G20 leaders. This presses the need for the right policy decisions to be taken today which can drive further investments and spur business decisions in favour of climate solutions across G20 countries ahead of COP26.

Has the UK done enough this year to position itself as a world leader on climate change?

As we know, last year the government launched its ten-point plan for a green industrial revolution – to ‘Build Back Better’ and to invest in making the UK a global leader in green technologies. These are things Thames Water fully supports.

This year, I think that the very act of taking the chair on an issue like climate change is an important one. We’re putting our country in the spotlight on this important issue, which brings greater expectations and closer scrutiny.

The impact of climate change is already with us, and there is a lot still that must be done to mitigate and adapt to its effects. So, I feel that no country can call itself a world leader on this topic until clear actions are both agreed and being met.

Walking the talk

When and how is your company planning to get to net zero?

We’ve made an important pledge to reduce our operational net carbon emissions to zero by 2030. This is a full 20 years ahead of the UK government’s target. And we won’t stop there, we’ve committed to going beyond net zero by 2040.

Our Net Zero Roadmap was released in July. This sets out our plans on how we’ll achieve our targets over the coming years.

One of the areas I’m most excited about is our opportunity to play a much bigger role in energy transition in the UK. We can do this by turning sewage into power or generating ‘poo power’ as we like to call it. This concept isn’t new to us, in fact we’ve been doing this for decades, but we want to really harness this opportunity to turn even more of a product we used to call ‘waste’ into power.

Did you know that just last year we generated 301 GWh of electricity from sewage? That’s enough to power the London Borough of Bexley for a year. As well as creating more renewable energy, so we can treat water in a more sustainable way, we’re finding new ways to store and share more of this power for homes and more.

Alongside this, we’re part way through updating all our digestion boilers to run on renewable biogas across all our waste sites. We also have solar panels at over 40 of our sites, which have the capacity to generate over 11 Gigawatt-hours of power a year – enough to power 3,700 households or supply water to 200,000 people. And, as an electric car user myself I’m delighted that we’re planning to trial the use of electric vehicles in our fleet later this year.

These are just some of the examples of the things we are doing. I’d recommend having a look at our Net Zero Roadmap to see more.

Our plan is aligned to the Water Industry Net Zero Route Map – this was unveiled in November 2020 and is a ground-breaking plan to deliver a net zero water supply for customers by 2030. This route map is a world first in terms of commitment across our sector.

We’ve estimated we could save the emissions from 5 million tonnes of greenhouse gases by reaching net zero two whole decades ahead of the government’s target of 2050. Our ambition is that this will set the standard for other utility industries in the UK and world-wide.

The route map is leading to real actions and reductions already and I believe it matches the ambition of the Science Based Targets Initiative.

To what extent should utilities look to offset emissions as opposed to focusing on achieving zero carbon?

With emissions like nitrous oxide from our wastewater treatment, our industry has yet to fully understand how to eliminate them. But we can’t wait for all the solutions, we need to offset this by going beyond net zero in other areas – for example, by producing green, renewable energy at our sites, as I’ve already mentioned.

Ofwat has recently acknowledged this significant challenge and I’m delighted that they’ve granted us £6million of innovation funding to work collaboratively with others in our industry on investigating new lower-carbon ways to treat wastewater.

What role do you think utilities have in helping to accelerate the climate plans of local authorities? Is there anything in particular your company is doing?

Thames Water is committed to supporting local authorities in delivering their important but challenging climate change plans. We must all work collaboratively and innovatively to make sure we’re successful in our mitigation and adaptation goals.

As I’ve already mentioned, one of the ways we’re supporting is through our innovative ways to create reliable, affordable and sustainable power by processing waste. We’ve been exploring ways to heat more than 2,000 homes in Kingston with excess heat gathered during the sewage treatment process at their local treatment works. This would really help in shifting homes away from gas boilers.

We’re also exploring other opportunities to help local authorities, such as running local bus services on green gas generated from sewage. We’ve also recently co-funded the Greater London Authority’s Grow Back Greener scheme, where we’re creating green spaces in the Capital for everyone to enjoy. These also act as sustainable urban drainage solutions, absorbing some of our rainfall in a green and carbon friendly way.

Customers and the community

What role can utilities play in helping to engage customers on the path to net zero?

I’m a firm believer that we must listen to our customers, understand their concerns and support their needs. Since joining Thames Water over a year ago, I’ve been out and about engaging with many customers and hearing their views. Our teams are also closely connected with their needs, talking to customers and finding out more.

We know our customers care deeply about climate change. So, we’re helping them to make a difference through our communications – educating and empowering them to make small, everyday changes that can help.

For example, our ‘Bin it, don’t block it’ campaign is all about helping customers understand that putting wet wipes, fats and grease and other products down the sink or toilet can create fatbergs and blockages in our sewers. Those blockages can lead to sewage overflowing into their homes and communities and removing these fatbergs often requires machinery and HGVs. Eliminating them from our sewers would save on all the journeys these vehicles have to make, as well as reducing the disruption to communities.

Alongside this, we’re keen to help our customers understand that water is precious and scarce in our region. They can help by reducing the amount they use and the quickest way to manage this is to install a water meter. This empowers them to own the issue, and encourages them to look at ways to save water that work best for them whether it’s shorter showers, having a water butt in their garden to catch rainwater and water the plants, or simply turning the tap off between brushing their teeth – there are lots of ways to make a difference. Each small act will make a bigger impact if everyone takes the steps together.

What is your principle ask of government and regulators to help your company contribute to the net-zero push?

I’d say that de-carbonising the electricity grid by 2035 will unlock the potential to do things differently, such as switching from using biogas to create renewable electricity to injecting it into the gas grid to replace natural gas.

We’d also like to see definitive support for the delivery of some of our key schemes, such as unlocking the potential of biomethane.

I’d like us to work with Ofwat to secure the right balance of investment for climate change mitigation and adaption, while also ensuring financially vulnerable customers are supported. We understand delivering on our net zero ambitions won’t be an easy road, and we can’t achieve it on our own. To overcome the challenge, we’ll need and want to work with all our partners, stakeholders, and regulators. We’ll also need to adapt our plans as the latest technologies and opportunities emerge.

This interview is part of the Countdown to COP series. To read more click here.