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2nd – 6th February 2015

Monday was an office day and I arrived in Swindon just in time to hear the latest all staff briefing from our interim CEO David Grant. I was chuffed and embarrassed to be nominated for our regular ‘Living our Values’ award which quite rightly went to our claims team for setting a record in processing grant payments at the end of last year. After a catch up with Nick Cliffe we both met with our High Value Manufacturing colleagues to talk about how we help companies think about the business model for deploying their technology and how we can get more resource efficiency considerations into manufacturing projects.

I then met with our Events and Comms teams to start planning an event to round off the Solving Business Problems with Environmental Data projects and hopefully connect promising ones with future funding streams from us. The event will be of interest to any business or public body trying to deal with environmental externalities affecting their business or changing their markets/customer’s needs.

Following that meeting I briefly got to know my new contact in SBS who will help me with forward procurement of Missions before joining the Competitions monthly meeting to review the current plan before heading home.

Tuesday I worked from home and was mainly focussed on sorting some project problems (including a call with a project that had to fit tags to rare gulls on a remote Scottish clifftop!), preparing purchase orders for the new financial year for ongoing work, and inputting to the Waste to Bioeconomy report being prepared by BIS and Defra.

Wednesday morning I flew to Belfast for a two day tour of key companies with my Sherpa, Eoin McFadden of the Northern Ireland Department of Enterprise, Trade & Investment. We started with a visit to B9 who have a range of activities in renewable energy and even into shipping who hosted a collection of businesses under the umbrella of Centre for Advanced Sustainable Energy (a £10m centre funded by Invest NI). The companies were:

·         Williams Industrial Services – who are a major engineering solution provider covering water, renewable energy, aerospace etc. They have developed a carbon-fibre pre-former for Bombardier’s plant making jet wings in Belfast. A bit of an unsung hero of NI manufacturing.

·         McLaughlin & Harvey – a fairly big civil engineering firm who have innovated into the offshore renewable area with a clever technology for securing tidal turbines to sea-beds.

·         Agri AD – a company developing anaerobic digestion technology in NI and looking to go beyond electricity generation with them to vectors such as upgrade biogas to biomethane to the grid.

·         B9 – themselves a leader in renewables and some interesting projects such as using unsellable wind energy to convert to hydrogen as another energy vector.

I gave some context to Innovate UK’s role and we discussed how we can connect with NI companies better. We then journeyed to the AES power station at Kilroot. AES provide 80% of NI electricity from this station and one other. Kilroot is a coal-fired power station with an interesting history. It was built as an oil fuelled station in the late seventies and during build had its economics hit by the oil shock. Only two turbines were commissioned and by 1986 was converted to coal. The result of this is a fair bit of space inside and two huge 300MW turbines unused at one end of the hall! They’ve been there 35 years and the availability of spare parts means this is one of the most reliable stations on the grid.

We were at Kilroot however to learn about their plans for grid storage. An Energy Catalyst grant from us will enable a 10MW battery to be connected to the plant (using the empty space in the plant) to help regulate the output and reduce costs. This is part of a plan towards a 100MW grid storage service being built on space outside the plant – essentially a big warehouse of batteries and looking like a huge datacentre. This would be the biggest in Europe and help the aged grid infrastructure in NI which has a target of 40% renewables by 2020 and needs to upgrade to incorporate this.

classic NI scenes: Samson & Goliath the mega cranes and the Titanic dry dock

A fascinating day, which finished with a catch up with our Low Impact Buildings team who were presenting on their upcoming competitions the next day. Eoin and I joined them for the briefing before heading to the Department for the Environment to meet with various policy colleagues and discuss the connection between innovation policy and various other policy challenges such as climate change, transport and waste for the NI civil service. A productive meeting reminding that business can often provide innovative solutions to policy challenges and public bodies can be part of our projects, particularly where they ‘own’ the problem and are effectively the end customer.

I flew back home with plenty to follow up on and certain we can do more to connect with NI in future.

Stat of the week:  There are as many cows as people in Northern Ireland

This week’s travel carbon footprint: 370 kg CO2 (more flying!)

Mike Pitts