Can SME’s work with utilities and find a way to market?

Engineering technology innovators Oxford Flow and Utonomy are testing new products to improve the gas distribution network. The Stephenson Fund is an investor in both companies and has also helped them to secure funding from Innovate UK. Stephenson Fund Investment Director, Mark White,  recognised the potential of the two companies to collaborate and after introducing them to each other, a new combined trial is planned to test the benefits of their two products working together in tandem.

We talked to both SMEs about their experiences of working with SGN, a large gas utility, to pilot their innovations to full commercialisation. We wanted to understand how the process has helped them and enabled them to test their products on a live gas network in controlled conditions and to optimise final product development.

Network Innovation

Both Utonomy and Oxford Flow were able to take advantage of the Network Innovation Allowance (NIA) scheme created by the energy regulator Ofgem. The NIA provides a mechanism to fund truly innovative projects with potential benefits across the UK. The results of each project carried out by any one gas utility are shared with all the other UK gas utilities to avoid the need for replication.

Utonomy – reducing waste and helping the environment

Southampton-based Utonomy has developed smart gas grid technology, which can help gas network operators decarbonise by optimising grid pressure, reducing gas shrinkage. A further application of their technology can also increase the feed-in of bio-methane into the grid.

Utonomy CEO Adam Kingdon talked to us about the company’s collaboration with SGN. He started by explaining the problem that gas network utilities face. “Currently pressure in the network is controlled by gas governors most of which are set manually. The problem with this is that demand varies massively, for example between a cold winter morning and a summer evening. To remain safe and to be able to meet demand at all times, the governors have to be set to for the worst-case scenario i.e. the cold winter morning. This means that most of the time the governors are set at too high a pressure, which leads to excess leakage. Furthermore, many governors are adjusted seasonally by hand. This can tie up skilled technicians for several weeks. Keeping any methane leakage from the network to a minimum is critical as methane is a potent greenhouse gas with 25 times more impact on global warming per kg than CO2.

“Our solution is to fit intelligent sensors and controllers across the network. Using machine learning, the system’s software collects data from the network and learns how to optimise the pressure in the network to reduce leakage while providing good customer service. Our technology can also be used to increase the feed-in of biomethane into the network – essential in order to increase the share of renewable gas used in the UK.”

Engaging with SGN

Adam Kingdon explained how engaging with SGN works and how this model for encouraging innovation can benefit everyone involved. “I’d worked with utilities before, through a previous company that I’d founded. In that case, it was water utilities, but the idea of controlling network pressure and minimising leakage is just as important to the gas industry as well. When we approached SGN, we found that they took a very pragmatic and supportive approach. Critically, SGN’s knowledge of safety issues helped us to develop our product to work in an environment where you have to conform to strict rules, for example, our controllers need to have multiple fail-safe features as well as being intrinsically safe to operate in a methane environment”.

“Our trials end this summer when a formal review and report will be published. We’re already talking to SGN about next steps and we’re also getting strong interest from other gas  Utilities both inside and outside the UK. Without SGN’s support and the NIA, this would have been a very challenging product to develop and launch so we’re delighted with our partnership.”

Oxford Flowmanaging the pressure

Oxford University spin-out Oxford Flow was in a similar position to Utonomy. The Company produces innovative pressure control equipment that is designed for the energy, water and process industries. It has developed a new gas pressure regulator to help manage pressure and control leakage. As Paul Johnson, Operations Director at Oxford Flow, explained, “The design of pressure valves haven’t changed much in over 100 years; they’re big, heavy pieces of equipment that need frequent maintenance. We’ve designed a completely new type of regulator that’s compact, lightweight, maintenance-free, better-performing and corrosion-proof.

“We found that once we had made the right connections with SGN, they fully engaged with us. It was slow at the beginning, but it was also straightforward and we always understood the process and how to follow it, so that has been very helpful. Once we had formalised our product and completed development, we had everything in place to start our trials on a live gas site and it became a game changer for our company. SGN has given us guidance about the needs and regulatory requirements of the gas market and set up two field trials for us, in the South of England and in Scotland. It was a rigorous process and initial results show very positive performance with efficient installation and improved accuracy around the pressure set point. After they are complete, we’ll be ready to go to market straight away. Another interesting development is that our product may also be combined with Utonomy’s actuator system, so that could be part of further trials.”