NI Water’s Chief Executive Sara Venning reveals how the organisation is working hard to facilitate Northern Ireland’s bold economic and environmental ambitions but requires urgent government funding to ensure it can continue to deliver.
“The last year has been truly unique in so many ways,” explains Venning.
The Chief Executive says that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on people’s lives, changing the way we live and operate our businesses, throwing a spanner in the works of normality and making us doubt the reliability of many of the services which, in modern life, we had come to take for granted.
One constant throughout the various twists and turns of the last 12 months is water.
“Despite a number of lockdowns of varying degrees, the homes and businesses of Northern Ireland have continued to enjoy a supply of clean drinking water and the efficient removal of wastewater. Each day of the last year has been challenging, but our interactions with water have been one constant which we have been able to rely on in a tumultuous world,” states Venning.
Behind that feat are the team at Northern Ireland Water (NI Water), who, throughout the last year, have been maintaining this region’s water infrastructure so that when we turn on the taps we get the clean, safe drinking water we have come to expect. They have continued to deliver a vital service to Northern Ireland during the pandemic, most importantly in supporting frontline health services.
Some of NI Water’s team are based out in the field maintaining reservoirs, water pumps and wastewater treatment plants, fixing leaks and bursts, while others are based in laboratories carrying out vital water testing. All had to adjust to a new way of working as the pandemic took hold but with the right measures in place NI Water was able to ensure no interruption of service, even during the extremely dry weather experienced last spring and early summer.
“It may be hard to remember as you look out of your window now but there was a long spell of sunny weather in the early days of last year’s lockdown when everyone took to their gardens, sending usage soaring as the rain dried up,” Venning highlights.
“In June, demand for water came close to outstripping our ability to treat it and it looked as if a hose pipe ban might be needed but our water supply team kept the water flowing with a bit of help from some much needed rain.”
At the same time, NI Water’s capital works saw only minimal disruption in the early days of lockdown as new, socially distanced protocols were implemented on its sites around Northern Ireland. As a result, it invested more than £170 million on capital works last year on maintaining and enhancing pumps, pipes and treatment works, while also installing new storm tanks and other essential engineering.
While that may sound like a lot, more is needed if NI Water is to reach its overriding aim of providing a modern efficient service to Northern Ireland, not just during the course of the pandemic but for this and future generations, according to Venning.
“£170 million in one year is nowhere near the amount of capital investment which is needed to meet all our infrastructure needs. That need is apparent throughout NI Water’s stable, but is particularly vital for the treatment of wastewater.”
That urgency has arisen due to an historical lack of investment by the Executive which means Northern Ireland’s sewerage and wastewater works are struggling to cope with growing volumes from an increasing population and economy.
NI Water is a non-departmental public body which can only invest in line with allocations set out by the Northern Ireland Executive with funding which is scored against the block grant.
“Over the past 10 years our government hasn’t made available the level of investment needed. The funding which was made available has gone into ensuring that our public water supply is safe but we haven’t been able to invest in growing our wastewater treatment capacity, one which is vital to support economic growth,” explains Venning.
“As a result, the growth potential of Northern Ireland will be curbed in the future if NI Water isn’t able to allocate more funding to grow our wastewater treatment capacity. It really has been a case of cranes before drains and we need that to change.”
NI Water submitted its PC21 Business Plan to the Utility Regulator in January 2020, setting out that NI Water needs £2.2 billion capital investment over the next six years (2021-27), to maintain our essential water and sewerage services.
The need for increased funding has been backed by the Utility Regulator. In its PC21 Draft Determination, it has supported £2 billion capital investment.
“The Covid-19 crisis has shone a light directly on how vital clean water and sanitation are to society; one would say they are priceless,” Venning says. “This plan is an important one for all of us in Northern Ireland.
“It lays out a blueprint of what NI Water needs to operate and to deliver our service to all our customers on a daily basis, and what is required to ensure we have a modern, efficient, water service today and in the future that one would expect in a strong, modern regional economy. In shaping our plan, we have worked with the Utility Regulator and our stakeholders to propose a way forward to start to tackle the crisis looming in Northern Ireland.
“We set out the step change in capital investment required to address the most critical needs while providing continued improvements in our efficiency and service for our customers.”
At a recent meeting with the infrastructure committee, Director of Networks at the Utility Regulator, Tanya Hedley reported: “It is important to us that NI Water has security of funding and it would also be very valuable in their delivery if they had confidence in a three-year capital budget and that is something that is common elsewhere in the UK, in fact it is Great Britain accepted practise.
“Confidence in three-year capital funding adds significant value. This PC21 Draft Determination is what the company believes it can achieve and what we believe it can achieve if it is fully funded.”
Northern Ireland is unique within the UK as the only region where the regulated water utility is unable to fully implement the economic regulator’s final determination due to public expenditure constraints.
Progressing in close partnership
Amidst the growing urgency around funding, NI Water has continued to work hard with councillors and developers to ensure it is able to provide water and wastewater services, where possible, and said it will continue to do so within the constraints of environmental protection and access to funding.
Its Development Constraints Project Team has been allocated additional resource and developed a solutions engineering team. It has put in place new processes and procedures, created new responses to planning requests and focused on direct and early engagement with developers, agents and designers.
The latter point is critical to ensure development continues apace.
“Our key focus is to ensure two-way dialog and engagement continues with all significant parties in the development process,” Venning says.
NI Water is confident that, if granted the required funding from government, it will be able to roll out the programme of investment laid out in PC21 to support the growth ambitions of Northern Ireland.
“We know each council’s growth ambitions, we know what needs done in each area and we have the plan and the skills to deliver it for you. We now need the funding.”
While the economic aspect of investment in NI Water’s wastewater infrastructure is important, the environmental consequences of underinvestment – potential waterway pollution – bolster the call for investment in infrastructure.
That’s a sentiment backed by James Orr, Director of Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland.
“Investment in NI Water’s infrastructure, such as wastewater treatment plants and drinking water supply, are as important to me as investment in libraries, our hospitals and schools,” says Orr. “The 46,000 km of pipework throughout Northern Ireland is invisible and out of sight but it is the difference between living in a civilised and a non-civilised society.
“I would plead with government to recognise the importance of this type of infrastructure.”
Green growth from within
Alongside wastewater infrastructure, NI Water has also developed a roadmap showing how it can play its part in helping Northern Ireland face a growing global climate emergency, utilising its significant land bank and other resources, Venning explains.
“We can play a strategically important role in helping society to decarbonise by planting one million trees and building more renewable energy generation systems on our land which will help double Northern Ireland’s renewable capacity, by opening a network of green fuel stations to kick-start our hydrogen economy. This has the potential to be used in decarbonising the gas network and by providing sources of warmth for district heating.
“Crucially, we make nearly all of this happen using third-party funding whilst at the same time lowering costs for water and electricity customers.”
Tree planting has already begun with the help of the Woodland Trust Northern Ireland, while NI Water has built and plans to extend its own solar farm on the shores of Lough Neagh and also has identified the potential for its land to host the largest wind farm in Northern Ireland with a generation capacity of one third of a conventional power station.
“We can play a strategically important role in helping society to decarbonise by planting one million trees and building more renewable energy generation systems on our land which will help double Northern Ireland’s renewable capacity.”
There is also potential to utilise its 3,000 grid connections by installing energy storage facilities to store electricity from wind and other renewable sources for use at times of peak demand.
Leading the hydrogen revolution
Hydrogen is another proposition which could help Northern Ireland reduce its carbon footprint.
It can be produced from electrolysing water or the final effluent from wastewater treatment, producing oxygen as a by-product. That oxygen can be used in the wastewater treatment process to encourage the growth of good bacteria and could, in theory, help increase the capacity of NI Water’s treatment works within the existing footprint.
“We’re testing that theory at present and understand that although electrolysers are very energy-hungry pieces of equipment, if they run at night using the surplus energy from the wind farms, we might have created a virtuous circle,” says Venning. “Then we have a situation where green energy powers an electrical load which produces hydrogen, which in turn can be used for energy storage for release when the green energy is unavailable.
“Right across Northern Ireland we have wastewater treatment works situated close to all those major urban settings which could become a network of green fuelling stations either for hydrogen for larger vehicles or potentially acting as fast charging points for electric vehicles making use of high-capacity grid connections.
“The hydrogen that is produced in an electrolyser could be used for storage or for fuelling HGVs or indeed for decarbonizing the gas network.”
The process is currently being assessed by NI Water at a Department for the Economy-funded pilot electrolyser project.
Similarly, NI Water is flagging up the potential that harnessing the heat produced by the wastewater treatment process could be used to heat home and businesses in a district heating scheme project or even to heat greenhouses used in food production.
“There is a world of opportunity which we’re exploring right now. These are bold steps, taking the lead not just on decarbonisation but also on green and economic growth,” Venning states.
“Here in Northern Ireland, we have a fantastic manufacturing base which is already building up knowledge in electrolyser engineering and could be a world leader in hydrogen technologies.”
Ambitious plans which need Executive support
It is clear NI Water is well on the way to harnessing the potential of its assets to kick-start green growth, not just for the organisation but for Northern Ireland as a whole.
That inclusive growth sits at the heart of its operational model, one which places a priority on supporting the Northern Ireland economy’s growth ambitions.
But to reach that aim, NI Water needs to double its capital investment, one which has been set out in its PC21 Business Plan and, because of historic underinvestment, which will take at least two price controls to outwork.
“The message is clear, NI Water is ready to provide engineering solutions to short-term constraints where possible, however we must face the inescapable reality that the full funding identified by the Utility Regulator in its Draft Determination (PC21) is required to fulfil the vision of economic expansion for our towns and cities,” Venning says.
She concludes: “This is not a ‘wish list’ or a ‘nice to have’, this is the plan that will help us ensure NI Water can deliver in a strong, modern regional economy.
Sara Venning graduated from Queen’s University Belfast with a Master of Electrical and Electronic Engineering after which she joined NIE as Customer Operations Manager. In 2010 she joined NI Water as Director of Customer Service Delivery and has been CEO since 2014. She has a passion for excellence, driving change that is transforming NI Water to becoming world class. Sara is also President of the Institute of Water, the UK water sector industry body and President of the NI WaterAid Committee, part of the national WaterAid charity working to transform lives by improving access to clean water, hygiene and sanitation in the world’s poorest communities.