How Utonomy is using AI to slash gas leaks
Hi Adam! What does Utonomy do?
Utonomy is a UK-based company that uses patented hardware and AI technology to optimise pressure in the gas network. Our primary aim is to minimise gas leakage and therefore reduce emissions of harmful methane from the network.
As well as minimising leakage and emissions, our technology also helps to prepare the networks for the low-carbon transition by helping operators to control pressures and prioritise the feed-in of greener gases such as biomethane and hydrogen.
What's your biggest strength?
Utonomy is the only proven, automated technology available that both supports the immediate requirements of our gas networks while also building the foundations for a decarbonised future.
To give the context - we need to reduce our reliance on natural gas to both ensure the UK has a secure and stable supply of energy, and so we can hit our target of net zero emissions by 2050.
To do that, the UK’s existing network needs to be upgraded to be able to successfully carry lower-carbon gases such as biomethane and hydrogen. There is also an immediate need to reduce leakage of harmful gases such as methane. Our unique, patented technology does both of these things.
How did you come up with the idea for Utonomy?
Before founding Utonomy, I founded a company called i2O Water to develop similar technology for optimising the pressure in the water distribution network to reduce leakage. The idea was to adapt the concept developed for water and apply it for gas. That is when I founded Utonomy.
We secured funding to develop a smart solution to help reduce leakage and minimise the amount of harmful methane emissions from the gas network. This is a major concern for the gas networks - while much of the network in the UK has now been converted to polyethylene, there is still a significant amount of old metallic pipe in the network which can be prone to leakage. When you consider that the global warming potential of methane is 84 times that of CO2 over a twenty-year period, that’s a serious issue that needs addressing.
However, this is easier said than done. Currently, the pressure in the network is controlled by thousands of governors, the majority of which are manually operated and either left at a fixed pressure or adjusted to seasonal pressures four times per year. The problem with this is that demand varies massively and if the governors are set manually, they need to be set for the worst case scenario i.e. the cold winter morning. This means that for much of the year and at night, the pressures are higher than they need to be.
Our technology helps to solve this issue by using smart pressure control to automatically adjust the governors so that the pressure in the network matches demand. This leads to lower average pressures in the network and, as the leakage is proportional to the pressure, this in turn leads to lower leakage.
Where is the business today?
We are about to start rolling out our technology in the South of England following successful trials with gas network operators SGN and Wales & West Utilities.
Further to this, together with SGN, we were recently granted funding from Ofgem’s Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF) to conduct a project to develop an Intelligent Gas Grid.
This project will further develop the ability of Utonomy’s remote control pressure system to collect and use network data - alongside external data such as weather - to develop machine-learning and AI applications. These applications are expected to automatically optimise network pressures and provide additional insights on network performance. Further enhancements will be developed to provide autonomous early warning and diagnosis of network faults, and dashboards which will allow network operators to monitor KPIs and predictive alarms in near real time.
We are also starting trials with US network operators, so watch this space!
What is the secret to making the business work?
For us, there are several things that have contributed to the success of the business so far.
The first is a close relationship with the four UK gas network operators and particular with SGN. This has enabled us to carry out extensive live network trials and to get valuable and extensive feedback on the products and technology.
The second is developing something unique - our technology is patented and is the best solution to help gas networks address their immediate and future needs.
The third is recognising the size of the opportunity, and the need for a solution to solve a major issue. For example, reducing methane emissions is under the spotlight, particularly following the COP26 climate conference last year, which saw hundreds of countries, including the UK, agree to lower emissions by 30%. In addition, UK networks must meet tough targets to reduce leakage each year.
The most cost-effective way of doing this is by applying a smart approach to optimising the pressure in the network, which is what our technology is designed to do. As leakage is proportional to pressure, a 20% drop in average pressure leads to a 20% reduction in leakage. This is an immediate win for the gas networks.
Our technology can also be retrofitted to existing network equipment without high capital investment, so payback for utilities is typically less than three years.
All of these things have helped us secure funding to enable us to continue to develop the technology and support our pipeline of sales.
How do you market the company?
Up until now, we have been fairly quiet on the marketing front, as the focus has been on developing the technology and working collaboratively with our network partners to deliver successful trials.
Now we are in a position to scale-up and move to the next stage of our plan - a wider commercial roll out. As such, we have ramped up our profile in the market through a programme of thought-leadership content.
What funding do you have? Is it enough?
Since we launched in 2015, we have successfully secured around £5m in seed funding to develop the technology and implement the trials. We are currently in the process of securing a new round of Series A funding to support our next phase of growth.
What were you doing before?
I’ve always had a passion for applying advanced engineering techniques to solve problems. Prior to Utonomy, I co-founded i20 Water, the leader in pressure management for water distribution systems. Before that, I was a CEO of a number of technology and engineering businesses in the UK, Germany and France.
The use of digital technologies, automation and AI is really exciting, particularly the impact it can have on our sector.
What is the future vision?
It is clear that the current gas system needs a radical transformation, and that this transformation needs to start now. Using smart, AI-based solutions will provide network operators with cost-effective tools to reduce leakage, increase the feed-in of green gas, optimise pressure and decrease the reliance on ‘human’ intervention to detect, fix and even predict faults on the network.
In the short to medium term, we are focussed on working with SGN on delivering the Intelligent Gas Grid project and implementing further trials with other gas networks in the UK. There is also a huge global opportunity, particularly in the US and Europe, so we are excited about taking Utonomy to these markets.