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Sustainability is in our DNA

An interview with Heid Mottram, Northumbrian Water

From extreme weather events to Greta Thunberg’s inspirational student-led campaign, environmental sustainability and the human impact on nature continue to dominate headlines.

And not without reason. Scientific analysis says that if we don’t get carbon emissions under control and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, life on this planet will be changed forever.

Businesses have a huge part to play in reigning in climate change because it is industry as much as human behaviour that is driving it. North East England has gone from being one of the worst polluters – thanks to its dominant role in coal mining and other heavy industries – to somewhere with an opportunity to lead the world on greening the economy and that is because of companies like Northumbrian Water, which has sustainability in its DNA.

The only water company to be named on the Ethisphere Institute World’s Most Ethical Company List, Northumbrian Water is driving the sustainability agenda forward not just regionally but nationally and internationally.

“Sustainability is a much broader topic than just the climate and environment – but the environment is clearly a fundamental part of it,” said Heidi Mottram, CEO of Northumbrian Water.

North East England’s water provider is targeting carbon neutrality by 2027 – three years before the rest of the industry and 23 before the current UK target.

One of the company’s major breakthroughs around carbon reduction came from the implementation of a technology called advanced anaerobic digestion (AAD).

“It’s what we call ‘power from poo’!” Heidi said with a smile.

AAD is a process whereby the biosolids that are produced through the treatment of water prior to it going back into the water supply are converted into biomethane – a green alternative to natural gas.

Traditionally, when biosolids were produced, they would have to be either spread to land or dried and made into fuel pellets, both of which are incredibly energy-intensive things to do. By converting to biomethane, not only does the water treatment process become more sustainable, but it also creates a green energy source with a wide range of applications.

With the same chemical constituents as natural gas, biomethane is the perfect green substitute to be pumped into the National Grid, something Northumbrian Water has been doing since 2013.

“It’s great because now you can cook your tea with biomethane, eat it and then give us your deposits back in a lovely circular economy,” Heidi said. “We’re now 100 per cent gas to grid and that’s something nobody else has done.”

As a forward-thinking water company, Northumbrian Water has, alongside other providers across the UK, signed up to the Public Interest Commitment – a social contract of five key national pledges with sustainability at its core.

In addition to the pledge to get to net-zero carbon emissions by 2030, the water company has signed up to develop a strategy to end water poverty, reduce leakage sector-wide, prevent the use of plastic bottles and increase social mobility through community engagement.

The Public Interest Commitment shows what progress can be made when an industry comes together and it’s something that Northumbrian Water has looked to build on with its annual Innovation Festival.

Now in its third year, the NWG Innovation Festival brings the whole water industry together along with partners from other sectors. Last year, 3,000 people attended the event.

Northumbrian Water’s CEO explained: “We are believers in the concept of open innovation. We think that you should bring people together, you should generate ideas in partnership and then you should share that knowledge for the benefit of everybody.”

Using the Google Sprint methodology – which goes from ideas generation to prototyping in five days – last year’s festival saw the development of the Common Infrastructure Map, which aimed to create a shared underground map of water, gas, electricity, telecoms and other underground services so that when maintenance is being carried out, engineers know exactly what’s under the ground they’re excavating.

“We’ve done some calculations and we reckon that the improvement this map could bring is somewhere in the region of £1.2bn to the UK economy just on what we know about the cost of utility strikes and pipe damage at the moment,” Heidi added.

The ‘climate of collaboration’ that Northumbrian Water has fostered will help North East England become a global leader in sustainability for years to come. We already have world-class offshore wind facilities in the form of the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult off Blyth in Northumberland. Newcastle University was also named the second most sustainable university in the world in 2019 by the Times Higher Education Impact Ranking. That’s to say nothing of the fact that 26 per cent of all European electric vehicles are made in North East England.

As the world is waking up to the importance of sustainability, North East England’s business community is coming together to make sure it’s hardwired into our economy.

The content and photography in this editorial section were produced by North East Times.

"We think that you should bring people together, you should generate ideas in partnership and then you should share that knowledge for the benefit of everybody."
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