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Q & A: The green engineering tech that could cut the UK’s emissions

Institution News Team

The Utonomy team
The Utonomy team

An engineering start-up backed by the Institution’s Stephenson Fund is reducing methane leaks across the gas network – and could help cut emissions causing climate change.

Adam Kingdon, founder and CEO of Utonomy, talks about the next steps for the technology and its potential impact on global warming reduction targets.

How did you identify the methane leakage issue and set about addressing it?

Before setting up Utonomy I founded i2O Water, which reduced water network leakage by an average of 20% and operates in 20 countries. Interest from the gas sector in the success we were having led to the birth of Utonomy. The objective is similar: optimise the pressure in the network and bring down leakage. The majority of gas governor stations are currently adjusted manually and with thousands in the network, this is a drain on resources. Our technology can be retro-fitted and then operated remotely.

Was there a ‘eureka!’ moment?

There was, in a sense, a ‘reverse eureka’ moment. Reducing gas leakage sounded like an excellent opportunity to roll out similar technology to that developed at i2O.  But when I learned more about how the gas network operates I realised that the technical challenge was going to be far more difficult.

Two issues have been particularly problematic: meeting the stringent ATEX safety standards to override manually operated controls; and perfecting the algorithms to optimise the network when demand changes frequently and with multiple gas governors feeding the same network.

What makes you most proud about your product and its path to market?

It’s a significant, real-world problem that we’re working on, and it has taken tenacity, creativity and inventiveness to overcome some huge challenges which require expertise in a range of different disciplines, from mechanical engineering to software, mathematics to electronics.

I’m proud of our small but very strong multi-disciplined team, who work extremely closely together, who believe in the goal and contribute great commitment and flexibility to get there.

To what extent does your product benefit society?

OFGEM currently provides strong incentives to utility companies in the UK to reduce leakage. Managing pressure cuts costs as well as leaks. Cost reductions automatically flow to the consumer through the eight-year pricing reviews. If we applied our technology to 100% of the UK network, the emission reduction equates to taking 1.8 million cars off the roads - or converting almost two million vehicles to electric. That’s a dramatic environmental benefit to the population.

What does Stephenson Fund investment enable you to do?

Investment from the Stephenson Fund has given kudos and credibility to the team and the technology. Its additional value was that it made our project more attractive to other investors. We raised £1m from a variety of sources. It has helped – particularly because we were pre-revenue as well as pre-product – that the reputation of the Stephenson Fund is so high. It will see us through till March 2018, the completion of customer trials.

What does the development of Utonomy’s technology reveal about engineering skills in the UK?

We are a highly multi-skilled team of seven but need to add to it. Recruitment has been extremely tough and remains a big challenge. We have recruited people from the UK and across Europe, and we have an office in Munich. At this stage, recruitment and supply still looks difficult.

With our technology in place, operation of the network system will change, which is an opportunity for retraining and skills retention. Utility companies will be installing our software and equipment themselves, and running their operations, including deployment of their staff, more effectively.

Outside the UK, in which market would you most like to install your technology?

The US has a large gas market and many networks still have a high level of deteriorating cast iron pipe systems similar to the UK. We have meetings scheduled with a US distributor and their customers later in the year. In other territories, there is demand where operators need to manage pressure to integrate biomethane into the network. In the developing world leakage can be incredibly high. However, there are certainly political challenges to implementation, where regulation or a culture of environmental benefit are not so strong as in the UK and Europe.

What predictions can you make for the reduction of methane leakage and the effect on global warming?

The potential for reducing worldwide leakage is massive. The last IPCC report said that methane was 84 times worse than C02 over 20 years (a significant increase on previous estimates). I think the 20-year number is relevant as it is the next 20 years that are crucial.

If the Utonomy technology achieved 100% coverage across the whole world, which I recognise is unachievable, this could reduce leakage by over 300 million tonnes of CO2e per annum, which is equivalent to 75% of the whole emissions of the UK.

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