Pooling resources on energy and water

Dr Michael Green

The frequency and severity of floods and droughts are set to increase as the climate heats up, which means new ways to manage water need to be found – as well as the energy to do so sustainably. A new partnership, co-ordinated by ARU, is connecting small businesses to help transform this bigger picture.

It is well known that the East of England is the driest part of the UK, but quite how dry is perhaps less common knowledge. In total, we receive just 600 to 700mm of rain per year. This is roughly the same as Israel’s – a country that is more than 50% desert, and which invests heavily in infrastructure to cope with water shortages.

Try telling that, however, to people living on stretches of the East Anglian coast that were hit by devastating floods in 2013.

“As a region, we are vulnerable to both extremes,” Dr Michael Green, from our university’s Global Sustainability Institute, acknowledges. “We experience both water scarcity and water excess.”

As in many other parts of the world, climate change is increasing our exposure to these effects, and is forcing us to rethink how we manage water as a vital resource. The East, because of this unpredictable relationship with water, has become home to a myriad of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) which can offer innovative solutions to the challenges we currently face. These include firms producing flood defences and irrigation technologies, entrepreneurs who use remote sensing to assess drainage patterns, and businesses that model flooding vulnerability.

“The problem is that these are often small companies which have a discrete technology, or only do one thing,” Michael observes. “They aren’t really seeing the big picture.”

And because the SMEs are fragmented, their services, however innovative, are not always that attractive to the larger organisations who have the overview and make the big decisions about how to manage floods or drought – the local authorities and utility firms.

In 2013, therefore, the University became part of an EUfunded programme to create an international ‘cluster’ of SMEs offering combined water management solutions. This helped them to work together, pitching collaboratively for opportunities to work on water-efficiency projects around the world.

Pumping water across a flat land

While this joined-up approach makes both good strategic and business sense, however, it is not enough. In the future, says Michael, a critical consideration about how we deal with droughts and flooding is how we handle energy supplies. For water management depends on energy, particularly in the East which is relatively flat and thus demands a lot of energy to pump the water around.

If, say, desalination plants were built in the UK to bring us more fresh water (like Israel) how will we power these energy-intensive plants in a sustainable way? Getting water to the point of use – heating, pumping etc – already accounts for 6% of our carbon emissions. If we increase that to deal with the fallout from climate change, we only risk making climate change worse./p>

700 companies collaborating

Now Michael is co-ordinating a new European partnership. Energy In Water, launched in 2016, pulls together several pre-existing EU clusters, involving not just water SMEs, but firms working on solutions to energy issues such as sustainable heating, refrigeration, and power generation.

Again, the aim is to encourage co-operation – this time between some 700 firms from the UK, Spain, France, Denmark and the Netherlands. The partnership seeks out opportunities for the companies to collaborate all over the world, flags up funding opportunities, and enables them to pitch their innovations at international showcases. For instance, some of the participating SMEs recently joined an international delegation to Morocco, where they were able to assess local water supply problems, and begin to devise structured solutions which pool their resources and skills.

The strategic partnership is just a few months old, and therefore too young to have yet produced meaningful results. But as Michael points out the approach should, over time, have an effect not just overseas, but back in the UK and in the dry, but flood-prone, East.

“SMEs often have a great product, but no track record to back it up,” he points out. “These networks involve them in projects which help them prove their worth. That, in turn, makes them more attractive to water companies in the UK.”