Can a culture of innovation at National Grid really make a difference to our customers, stakeholders and the bottom line? Tamsin Kashap, National Grid’s Gas Transmission Innovation Manager, explores the latest innovations in the pipeline and discusses how collaboration holds the key to unlocking a brighter future.
Imagine a world where miniature robots repair the pipes beneath your feet. Where new pipes are installed simply by blowing a sticky plastic polymer inside a decaying old one. Or where the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning all but disappears.
Sound like science fiction? Well it’s not. Tomorrow’s world is already here. And National Grid is at the forefront of making these – and other ground-breaking innovations – a reality.
Innovation is all about finding new solutions to existing and emerging business needs. It’s no secret that National Grid faces several serious challenges as we march into a brave new energy world. From hitting tough environmental targets, to replacing ageing assets, reducing disruption to our customers and making our network as economical and secure as possible, we have a lot of work to do.
A collaborative effort
Working for a business that prides itself in taking a visionary approach, we aim to embed a culture of innovation in everything we do. We have creative thinkers looking at how we can do things better across the three business areas of Gas Distribution, Gas Transmission and Electricity Transmission. But it’s not something we’re doing on our own.
Innovation requires collaboration: sharing ideas and rigorously testing them to come up with concepts that will work intellectually and commercially. Whether that’s collaborating across the business to help reduce costs or with external stakeholders and other network companies. As celebrated American humanitarian Helen Keller put it: “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”
So that’s how the land lies. Now let’s explore a few highlights of the pioneering projects that we’re investing in and determined to deliver.
We showcased many of them at a recent innovation event in Aberdeen, Scotland: the Low Carbon Networks and Innovation (LCNI) Conference. We work closely with external partners and suppliers to undertake the essential research and development on our innovation projects. The LCNI Conference was an excellent opportunity to talk about the great work being done for us by our partner companies.
The three parts of our business I mentioned are all regulated by Ofgem. Much of our innovation work is funded by their Network Innovation Allowance (NIA). So sharing our innovation projects with customers and stakeholders is something that Ofgem demands – and it’s something we’re passionate about doing too.
Let’s begin with Gas Distribution and the Tier One Replacement System (TORS), something that promises a revolution in working practices and less disruption for our customers.
The big idea is to make service-to-mains connections without the need for excavations. That means sending robots inside the pipe to do the job.
Ordinarily, you’d be looking at 22 excavations for a typical section of mains with ten services. That’s a huge amount of disruption for the public. The team started with an existing robotic platform, but they needed to shrink it to fit inside a much smaller pipe. So we’re talking the same complicated functionality at a fraction of the size.
The robot has to be able to locate where the service enters the mains and then make the connection between service and mains. It drills a hole from the inside and inserts a special junction to make the physical connection. After each connection, the work is pressure tested before the robot moves on to its next connection. It’s an outstanding achievement of design and engineering. The next step for the team is to turn the existing concept into a working, functional, commercial solution.
As we touched on before, if we’re going to think big in this industry, we need to collaborate across our business, and with stakeholders and other networks. The Prism project is a great example of collaborating with others to achieve ambitious objectives. We’ve been working with infrastructure experts Balfour Beatty on the project, which will revolutionise how we replace ageing gas pipes.
Traditionally, this work involved digging up entire streets. But Prism needs just two excavations to achieve the same outcome. Nobody has to move their cars and homeowners’ driveways remain accessible.
It replaces pipes by blowing a polymer into an existing one to create a new pipe with a life of up to 50 years. First, a robot is sent into the gas mains to map the joint to each customer’s service pipe. These are then cleaned with compressed air before the polymer is applied using a stream of air. It can negotiate 90-degree bends and each pipe takes just 20 minutes to replace.
The gas main is completed at the end, with a 70-metre pipe replaced in a mere 30 minutes. Finally, the robot is sent back in to cut and seal the pipes at each joint to make sure the gas flows freely. Pipe replacement for a street of seven houses can be completed in just one eight-hour shift, which benefits our customers, the environment and National Grid.
Our communities’ most vulnerable people are the target audience for another collaborative project, called intelligent carbon-monoxide monitoring. Aimed at social and large private landlords, the system sends warnings to mobile phones and to a central portal if there’s a leak. So an emergency response can be on its way to an address before the vulnerable person who lives there is even aware there’s a problem. It’s a potential life-saver.
Building Information Modelling (BIM)
Cutting-edge 3D modelling is one of the most important innovations in Gas Transmission. It’s game-changing technology that, once implemented, will revolutionise the way we work.
The project is called ‘Building Information Modelling (BIM) – Investigation into Enhanced Techniques’, and the project team has been evaluating whether powerful software can enhance our asset-management and project-management processes.
Through 3D modelling and analysis, the project seeks to investigate cost savings associated with the evaluation of different operations, enabling complex technical analytics such as thermal, flood, noise, fluid flow and transients, capacity and lighting assessments. That’s the scientific part. In simple terms, it will reduce repeat development costs and peg vital data to interactive 3D models of our installations and assets which we can then take forward and use to manage them over the next 40 years.
Another element of the project, called life cycle and carbon-costing functionality, will also contribute to National Grid’s carbon reduction targets in 2020 and 2050.
While BIM’s been around for five years in the field of architecture, it’s a new innovation for National Grid and other network licensees. It’s already delivered cost savings of 4-11% and the team expects these to increase.
Value, of course, is about more than just cost savings. It can also be driven by using the models to benefit wider areas of the business. We’ll be doing that by making the models generated from the trial available to our Learning and Development team to support training and development, upskill trainees on existing and future sites and reduce future project development costs.
The BIM Bank is the first of its kind for the utility industry and we were proud to share its progress with our stakeholders at the LCNI Conference. We’re also committed to informing the wider industry on the outcome of the project, and we’ll be making presentations to bodies such as Pipeline Industries Guild and the Institution of Gas Engineers and Managers.
The project team believes BIM could also be applied across our electrical and security projects, so there’s huge scope to see its benefits on a bigger stage.
Using alternative materials
Gas Transmission is also looking at innovative uses for alternative materials such as composites in place of traditional materials. A review of existing pipe supports in use across the UK National Transmission System was undertaken with the aim of developing a suitable alternative to steel, which is extremely heavy and has an inherent corrosion risk.
The project team successfully identified a composite solution that has a lightweight, modular design. If successful during field trials, it will be less expensive and eliminate the corrosion risk associated with steel pipes resting on a steel support base.
Robotic Inspection of High-Pressure Installations
Gas Transmission has been successful in a bid to Ofgem’s National Innovation Competition (NIC) for a project called Robotic Inspection of High-Pressure Installations. If successful, the robot will be designed to internally inspect buried pipework on sites. Again, this will bypass the need for manual excavation to assess potential defects.
Collaboration is something that Electricity Transmission is serious about. Our team has been working with weather researchers at Reading University to understand more precisely how much electricity they can expect to be generated on wind farms.
The business decided to collaborate with leading meteorology experts at the university to see if there was anything new that we could do to improve our systems.
They’ve now developed a new model, based on 34 years of data, which can be run for any wind farm to show what its power characteristics might look like.
Renewable energy brings uncertainty for National Grid, for example because of the unpredictable nature of our weather. However, this project helps to manage that uncertainty and reduce it with more accurate forecasts.
New T-pylon design
Other innovations include our new T-pylon design and the live-line working trolley. This device allows employees to do maintenance on our lines without the need to shut off the power supply.
All these developments sit against the backdrop of a new regulatory framework called RIIO. One of its key requirements is that network companies like ours innovate to reduce network costs for current and future consumers.
We’re proud to work with our external partners and stakeholders to help develop and deliver innovation and the LCNI Conference was a fantastic opportunity to celebrate all of their hard work.
At National Grid, we’re determined to use innovation to build a safe and affordable future network for our customers. We’ll continue on our mission to bring the future closer and turn bright ideas into functional, reliable and commercially viable solutions.
“Collaborating across the business is essential. We work very closely with our colleagues from the other gas distribution networks and we pull together a lot of those ideas. This also helps to share costs. Between us, it helps to develop a broader portfolio so that we can pursue a wider range of innovation projects. RIIO is about building a network which is safe and affordable. We not only fix today’s challenges, but also set out the future of the networks over the next few decades. That’s where innovation comes into play.” – David Parkin, Gas Distribution Network Strategy Director.
“The LCNI conference was a fantastic platform to share a number of our innovation projects with the energy industry, with the Gas Transmission exhibit attracting hundreds of delegates over the three-day event. Many people took the opportunity to touch and interact with a number of the projects on display. In particular, our virtual reality headset was a real success, which I personally enjoyed, navigating my way around a high-pressure installation! I’m really proud of the team who all worked really hard and made the conference a real success for Gas Transmission.” – Darren Elsom, Head of Network Engineering, Gas Transmission Asset Management.
“Sharing the lessons from our projects with the other network companies is important to delivering the best value for customers from the investment in innovation. This year’s LCNI conference provided a great platform to demonstrate some of the innovative work the Electricity Networks Owners and GB System Operator have been undertaking, see what colleagues from other networks have been doing and, perhaps, most valuably, share thoughts and ideas about the challenges ahead and future projects to address them.” – David Oram, Network Innovation Manager.
Click here to view our Designing the future gallery.
National Grid has been awarded more than £15m through the Network Innovation Competition for two projects that will improve electricity and gas transmission networks. Click here to read more.