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Making the grid better

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A resource efficiency drive by National Grid is leading to thousands of recovered products and materials, writes John Twitchen

There has been a lot of talk about resource efficiency and the creation of a circular economy, but action has been a bit thin on the ground. Seemingly endless debates about what’s broke and how it can be fixed are fine in principle, but it’s time for action, and leadership.

That’s exactly what National Grid has been doing, working with its partners both large and small.

It may come as a surprise to some that National Grid is leading the charge, but sustainability is clearly at the heart of its operations.

While the focus of the business is on energy transmission (both gas and electricity), this complex and challenging task brings with it a responsibility for vast quantities of metals and other materials, and a very large land bank.

National Grid is a founding partner of the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, and has developed its own transition plan towards a circular economy.

The company held its first sustainability summit last autumn, and this has led to a number of fresh initiatives that have already begun to embed sustainability in practice, not just in policy.

In February, the company launched a Supplier Design Competition, one of the ideas to come from the sustainability summit.

The competition ran from February to June 2013, with suppliers submitting proposals for innovative, tangible product and component designs that contribute to protecting the earth’s diminishing natural resources.

The winner of the competition was Midal Cables, awarded by Sir Peter Gershon and Dame Ellen Macarthur in July.

Midal Cables’ proposal to turn old conductors into new conductors is a beautifully simple concept that clearly demonstrates the circular economy.

It means that in principle the aluminium overhead cables can be recycled back into use, and as a result National Grid buys less aluminium as it is able to use its existing supplies more efficiently.

Midal Cables has also benefitted from three years’ membership of the Ellen Macarthur Foundation Circular Economy Global 100, joining the likes of M&S, B&Q and Coca Cola.

Midal Cables general manager Kersi Master says: “National Grid’s competition has made us all think differently about making the best use of the resources we have.”

National Grid head of procurement UK Rob Douglas adds: “There’s a push on driving sustainability down through our business and supply chain.

“We’ve got huge support in there and five years ago it probably wasn’t on the corporate agenda as much. Now it’s a core thing we’ve got to look at.”

Trials to make the concept a reality are already underway, and the really good news is that there are a number of other products being developed as a result of the competition, showing National Grid’s support for its supply chain. Including domestic SMEs, there are over a dozen other products and component ideas to be followed up.

National Grid owns more than 15 million gas meters in the UK and a significant proportion of them will be replaced in favour of smart metering. More than 1.4 million meters are replaced each year, and the number is set to rise to around 1.8 million a year with the roll-out of smart-meters across the energy and water sectors.

Something that a lot of organisations involved in resource management may not be aware of, is the National Grid purpose-built meter assessment and recycling centre (Marc), based in Birmingham, which is pioneering the refurbishment or recycling of old meters.

The expertise the centre is developing means it is now able to refurbish more than a quarter of all the returned meters and recycles around 3,000 tonnes of material. The centre is now offering this service to other energy suppliers.

The primary objective is to identify meters that can be refurbished. Where this isn’t an option, the meter is taken apart and the materials are recycled.

This is a tricky job as older meters contain a huge array of parts and materials including various plastics, aluminium, steel, brass and batteries – all sent for recycling.

Taking responsibility for this important and unavoidable waste stream – one which is set to grow significantly – has its upsides, saving millions of pounds each year and turning a profit.

Working with Remploy, the centre provides clear social benefits in addition to the clear and significant economic and environmental upsides. 

Category: Energy
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