Earlier this month I had the pleasure of speaking at the joint Pipeline Industries Guild (PIG) / Institution of Gas Engineers and Managers (IGEM) London Showcase and Lions’ Lair conference. As President of the PIG, I was delighted to be asked to address the event. The opportunity to meet with colleagues and friends from across the industry, as well as the next generation of engineers, was a really rewarding one, and one which gave me the chance to reflect on the future of our industry.
After all, with the Government’s focus on infrastructure and its ambition to change the way the utility industries work for customers across the country, it has never been a more important time to reflect on where we are – and where, as an industry, we need to get to.
Change always brings challenge. And the next few years will certainly bring challenge to everyone in the pipeline industries. But change also brings opportunity. For me, the biggest opportunity our industry enjoys is our ability to inspire the next generation. In these times of uncertainty and challenge to traditional thinking, whether this be on the issue of climate change, or the changing face of industry and the world of work, the pipeline industries have a role to play in building a new future.
In my speech I focussed on two topics. First, our history of innovation and how we adapt and change, and how we are doing so today to ensure we are ready for a Net Zero world. Second, how the pipeline industries can inspire the next generation of gas engineers – those that will be at the forefront of this change.
This week I will share with you my thoughts on innovation, how our industry can change and how we are already changing. Next week, I will write about how we can inspire the next generation. I hope my thoughts provide some food for thought and provoke discussion and debate.
In some ways, I believe the pipeline industries are actually victims of both our success, and the nature of our work.
To take addressing climate change as an example – when the electricity industry changes and decarbonises, we all see what they are doing. From wind farms and new forms of pylons, to solar farms and nuclear power stations, electricity innovation literally changes the landscape.
Our innovation, whatever we transport through our pipe networks, tends to take place underground. If our networks are working, we are simply out of the minds of most customers.
Whilst people see the electricity network changing, for many people the pipeline industries are either invisible or, even worse, out there digging up your road. That means our innovations go unnoticed or unappreciated by the public.
When you stop to think, though, our history of innovation is remarkable. In my sector, gas, we completely changed the nature of what we transmit through our networks – from town gas to natural gas – in the 1970s. And we made it work.
The pipeline industries have been on the cutting edge of innovation for longer than I have been alive. I’ll illustrate this innovation by offering an example. Last month I received an email from one of my teams in East Anglia. The Network Supervisor was trialling a new piece of technology, and was really excited by the results. Working in conjunction with an American company, we had taken possession of a small robot named CISBOT.
You place this robot inside a main, and it travels around, inspecting and repairing damaged joints along its journey. Instead of digging up a road to facilitate a repair, our engineers can now operate remotely – saving time and massively reducing disruption for customers. I think that’s an absolutely brilliant example of how we are already innovating to be better.
Meeting the Net Zero target
To build a future we need to face down our challenges, though. For those of us in the gas industry, our biggest challenge is ensuring we have a future in a Net Zero world.
I commend the Government for adopting a target for the United Kingdom to be carbon neutral by 2050. It was a brave decision. But ensuring the future of our planet – and ensuring the world we hand to our children and grandchildren is healthy – requires brave decisions to be made.
However as an organisation whose primary purpose is to facilitate the safe and efficient distribution of natural gas across the UK, Net Zero and addressing climate poses something of a challenge for us.
This is a challenge I’m determined to tackle head on. Making the gas networks part of the solution, rather than the problem, will require major investment. Major investment in both technology and skills.
I truly believe the gas networks can be transformed into a facility for the safe and efficient distribution not of natural gas, but of zero-emission hydrogen and environmentally friendly biomethane.
Hydrogen that heats our homes, powers our industry and supports transport – all while emitting only water as a by-product, and biomethane that is made in a green, clean, environmentally beneficial way.
We are still a way from achieving that goal. But just last month, in Keele we began a trial to blend hydrogen into the natural gas network. That trial – HyDeploy – will see 20% hydrogen blended into the existing natural gas network, with no impact on people’s appliances. If a 20% blend were to be rolled out across Britain, it would reduce emissions of CO2 by six million tonnes - equivalent to taking 2.5 million cars off the road.
In the North West, we are working with partners on the HyNet project, to build a new Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage facility – which should help us on the path towards creating environmentally friendly hydrogen at the quantities required.
Whilst across the country, we have a rolling programme to connect biomethane production facilities to our network.
But this will take time. And whilst those of us involved in the gas industry today will play a role in moving towards Net Zero, it will be the next generation of engineers and scientists who get us to that goal. Next week I will write more about how we can inspire the next generation to become the engineers and scientists we so desperately need.