Hydrating a land of water

Hydrating a land of water

Douglas Millican, CEO, Scottish Water, talks about the successes and challenges facing the largest water company in a nation known for aquatic resources.


Would you give us a snapshot of the country’s water sector? How is the region meeting the growing demand from its population and industries, and what have been some of the latest trends, challenges, and developments in the sector?

Scotland is a country with an abundance of natural water resources.  We have approximately 30,000 “lochs,” or water bodies, as well as many rivers. When people think of Scotland, often a picture of water comes to mind. It is such a huge part of our landscape, and, yet, for the public water supply purposes which we deal with, we access only 2 percent of Scotland’s water. The other 98 percent is there for any other purpose, such as agriculture, industry, or, in many cases, it is just part of the natural landscape. Now, despite this massive abundance of water, we still can have our challenges. Typically, in Scotland, it rains a lot in the west and is quite dry in the east, so the more significant water bodies tend to be in the west and north of the country rather than the east. Last summer, the extended hot and dry periods we had, by Scottish standards, caused quite a lot of operational challenges to make sure we had sufficient water for our customers’ use, whether in business or at home.

Water is absolutely essential to life, and therefore our customers trust and depend on us to make sure that we will deal with whatever challenges we face to deliver water to their premises. But that is only half of the equation. The other half is the wastewater side. We take away all the wastewater from homes or businesses, treat and recycle it. That can be a significant challenge to do in a way that meets contemporary environmental expectations, as well as the legal obligations that are placed upon us.


Can you give us a brief overview of Scottish Water, its role and contribution to the country?

One of the very unique features of the way Scottish Water is set up is that you are effectively promised the same level of service for the same price, irrespective of where you live in the country. It does not matter if you live in an apartment in central Edinburgh or in a house on the most remote Scottish island, our aim is to deliver the same level of service for the same price. What that takes in practice is very different. For example, our largest water treatment plant outside Glasgow, which serves a lot of central Scotland and a lot of the industrial heartland, supplies enough water for 700,000 people per day, whereas our very smallest water treatment plants are literally the size of a garden shed and might supply a handful of customers. We need to ensure that from the water treatment processes, the product quality is the same, whether it is for five houses or for 500,000. Effectively, we have a huge scale of manufacturing and distribution operations, the manufacturing being the water treatment or the wastewater from the other side, the distribution being the pipe network.

One of the challenges of an infrastructure business like ours is that quite a lot can go wrong. It can be affected by mechanical breakdown or a loss of power.  Our whole aim is that, no matter what problems we may have, we ensure that our customers get an uninterrupted supply of water. Because of the geography of Scotland, and the way the water network has developed over time, there is not a lot of dual supply. It takes quite a high level of operational ingenuity to ensure that we can keep the water running. For example, at our peak last summer, we were running over 30 tankers a day filled with water around the clock, topping up the water supply in areas where there were particular challenges. At the heart of our organization is a huge infrastructure of a lot of operational resilience in terms of our people and our approaches.


Which further transformational changes have you set for your next business plan period?

We are investing well over $900 million a year. There is a lot of investment that is quite routine because it is about replacing aging infrastructure—replacing water pipes or mechanical, electrical or control systems as they come to the end of their life. As for the transformational end of it, I will give you a few examples. The way the wastewater system operates in general in Scotland is what we call a combined system. It takes the foul sewage or the excess from industrial processes that are put down the sewer as well as the rainfall gathered from roofs and roads. When that was set up back in the 19th century that approach made a lot of sense. But now, it is increasingly challenging to manage combined sewer systems well. Three main impacts are challenging its sustainability. One is that we have a growing population, and there are more properties connected into the sewer network. Therefore, historically you would have had a field where the rainwater drained naturally through the ground. If that gets paved over with concrete as part of a factory, rainwater then goes into the sewer. That is more volume of water entering into a finite sewer capacity. Secondly, is that, increasingly, people are paving over their own front gardens often to store their car. There is less ground for the water to actually soak away and more that finds its way into the sewers. Thirdly is the impact of our changing climate. At times of rainfall, particularly in summer, we are experiencing more intense storms, and therefore the volume of water that hits any particular square meter of ground is higher than it was historically. When that drains to the sewer it puts further pressure on the finite capacity of the sewer system. Historically, what we would have done if we did not have sufficient sewer capacity is upsize our sewers. For example, about five to 10 years ago we built a large tunnel in Glasgow, spending about $182 million on a particular tunnel about three miles long and five meters in diameter to provide us with additional sewer capacity. it was a great project, but that sort of approach will not serve as well when we look to the decades ahead.

The transformational challenge for us is firstly, how to ensure that, when there is a new development, we are not taking any more rainwater into our sewer systems, and we are holding that rainwater on the surface. Another is how to retrofit our sewer systems, for example taking existing rainwater connections away from our sewer and holding that water above ground. This reduces the water pressure on the sewers, but also it gives us scope from an urban planning angle to create new blue-green spaces. These are not just a part of the sustainable environment, but actually quite an attractive landscaping feature, particularly in urban areas.

Some of the other transformational changes that we are making are around how to deliver our investment in a much less carbon-intensive manner. The sort of infrastructure investment that we undertake typically has a very high level of carbon content, whether that is in concrete, steel or just in the way plants are constructed. We are setting ourselves a challenge of how to take 75 percent of the carbon out of construction projects, and that is all about how to engage our whole supply chain, through all its tiers to find different solutions that use less carbon. This also means finding different ways of abstracting, transporting and processing materials.

The final area of transformation is how to get more efficient in the way we deliver projects. We have a program running simply called “Get to site in half the time.” It is about how to reduce by 50 percent the time it takes from project inception to that project being on the ground delivering. Taking 50 percent time out means we are aiming to take 30 percent of the cost out. And we will now look too at getting off site in half the time. Essentially, there is a lot of transformation going on to reduce costs, improve time and reduce carbon.


What has been the impact of the pandemic on Scottish Water? How has it accelerated some of your investment programs or shifted your priorities in the company?

The pandemic has shone a light on the fact that what we do is essential to life. We absolutely had to keep the service running to an exceptionally high standard throughout. That is quite challenging given our geography and given that we have got small teams of people running plants all over the country. This was no small task, and it was done incredibly well.

One of the interesting dimensions has been the increased public appreciation for what we do, particularly on the environmental side. With lockdowns and people restricted to not going five miles beyond their own house for many weeks, people suddenly discovered elements of their neighborhood that they would have never appreciated before. There was an increase in people walking along rivers or along beaches. That greater appreciation of the natural environment brought a certain awareness. There has been a significant increase in public consciousness about the role water management—both clean water and wastewater management—plays in a healthy and natural environment.


What are some of the main investments carried out at the moment to buffer your services against the impact of climate change and reduce carbon emissions?

If I start with the impacts on drinking water, in simple terms, the issue falls into the category of having enough water and the right quality of water. In terms of having enough water in Scotland, nearly all our natural or untreated water comes from what we call upland sources. It is either held in reservoirs—effectively dammed rivers—or it is held in lochs. We have an excellent understanding of the storage capacity in those and how long a drought we can withstand before getting into problems with a lack of water. That is actively monitored throughout the year. We have all sorts of different scenarios modeled about where we could get into particular stress and what we might do in those situations. From a strategic angle, we have looked to build our storage capacity, raising reservoir dam levels to increase storage capacity. In some situations, it might be about putting in pipeline connections to carry water from one source to another. Very occasionally it might involve abstracting water from a different source. Then the fourth thing is in times of real drought, particularly in the smaller communities, moving water by tanker. Typically, particularly in our island communities where you can often get a combination of dry weather and peak tourist demand, we will use road tankers to take water onto islands and up to remote rural communities. That is more cost-effective than having the additional permanent infrastructure in place. We must have a real eye over time to what is changing in terms of forecasted weather patterns to make sure that we have sufficient water, but equally, we do not want to build so much capacity that might never be needed, because that would be uneconomic for our customers.

Coming to the issue of the quality of water, although the raw material all falls from the sky in the form of rain, it then effectively moves through the ground before it gets into the river or the reservoir. It can pick up some naturally occurring materials or compounds in the natural environment. One of those can be manganese. It might already be in a reservoir, or it might effectively flow into a reservoir if a forest has been cut down around it. What we need to ensure is that for each of our supply systems, we understand, not just what the quality of water is today, but how that quality of water might change, for example, as reservoir levels drop. We must ensure that we have the capability to purify whatever incoming water might be, to take out any impurities and that what goes out of the water treatment plant is pure, safe high-quality drinking water. That might sound very simple, but we have about 240 different water supply systems, and the characteristics of that raw water can change as reservoir levels change. It can also change based on weather patterns because you can often get the water turning over at different times of the year. The real strategic challenge for us there is to ensure we have a good understanding of the different risks to the quality of our raw water to make sure that our purification processes are good enough to treat it. Those are the two big things on the drinking water side.

On the wastewater side, on adaptation, the main strategic challenge is how to manage rainwater on the surface to reduce the volume of water in the sewers. To a degree, at our wastewater treatment plants, we have to be ready to deal with both extremes of either more diluted sewage if there is lots of rainfall mixed in the sewage, or, at times, of very extended dry weather, a more concentrated influent. Almost equivalent to the water sites is understanding the nature of the raw materials coming in, or the range of the quality of the raw materials to make sure the purification can run to standard.

The other side is making sure that we are playing our full part in the sustainability of the future society and the future of humanity. Climate change, apart from the immediate crisis like the absolute tragedy in Ukraine, is the most foreseeable existential threat to the future of humanity and life as we know it, particularly if we look many decades out.  We must do everything in our power to minimize any negative impact that we are having on the environment through carbon emissions. In fact, even going beyond that, we want Scottish Water to become a net positive contributor to carbon reduction across society as a whole. On the operational side of our activities, we have made very good progress to decarbonize our operations. A lot of that has come through the transition of Scotland’s electricity networks to renewable electricity, what we call the greening of the grid. That has been a very powerful contributor to reducing the carbon consumed through electricity. Secondly, we are trying to make sure that we reduce any wastage in our activity. For example, we try to eliminate water leaks from our network or optimize that from a carbon angle to make sure that the carbon associated with any water that might be leaking is less than the carbon that would be consumed in going in, finding and fixing those leaks. Then we are optimizing all our different treatment processes from an energy and chemical consumption angle minimizing the carbon that is used in them.

On the investment side, we set this initial challenge of trying to take 75 percent out of the carbon consumed in construction. The next leg is sequestration. We have quite a bit of land, particularly around reservoirs. We are looking at how to protect and restore our peatland that has been historically damaged. It is a very effective sink for carbon and for growing trees.

Lastly, we have a lot of opportunities for generating renewable energy off our estate. At the moment the amount of renewable energy generated on our estate, either directly or through wind turbines that we host, is over twice the electricity we consume ourselves. We are looking by 2030 to get that to be over three times the amount of electricity that we consume.


Do you have any final comments for the readers of Newsweek magazine?

At the end of last year, we started engaging all our people across Scottish Water in the “Scottish Water story” which narrates the journey from where we are as an organization today to where we need to be in the future. It begins with what we do being essential to life. It travels through all the different challenges and pressures and recognizes too that we will not serve Scotland by staying as we are. There is a real commitment to creating some new futures in Scotland’s green revolution. Scotland looks to be a real exemplar in environmental performance. We want to be at the forefront of that, creating new ways of doing things. It is all about how we work with people: our people internally, in our supply chain, in that wider ecosystem of communities, developers, businesses and academia so that together we can be real pioneers in the way we help Scotland flourish in the future.