Isle Utilities’ Trial Reservoir Removes Barriers for Utilities with Net-Zero Goals

The UN and other organizations suggest that the collective emissions from the water sector are responsible for 10% of global greenhouse emissions. By introducing new measures and technologies, however, the sector has an incredible opportunity to cut emissions, decarbonize, and lead the way for other industries. Are utilities up for the challenge?

“The water sector can play a huge role in the shift to net zero,” says Dr. Jo Burgess of UK-based Isle Utilities. “Unfortunately, we are not changing fast enough.”

While many water and wastewater utilities are working toward net-zero mandates, Burgess explains, the sector is not known for quickly adopting new solutions. “At Isle, we see a lot of technology companies that conduct pilots or trials with clients, but it very rarely leads to a sale or full-scale implementation. We’re trying to change things.”

Currently, Isle is focusing on supporting utilities and industries with water issues as they aim to achieve net-zero carbon. “Climate change is the most pressing issue our industry – and the world – is facing,” she says. “With the Trial Reservoir, we’re acting to accelerate the transition.”

What is the Trial Reservoir?

The Trial Reservoir, Burgess explains, is a revolving “economic empowerment” pool of money that reduces the financial risk – for tech companies and end users – of taking on trials for new water technologies.

Launched in November 2021, the Trial Reservoir is a pot of internally donated funds from Isle Utilities and a syndicate of sponsors, including PureTerra, WSP, Hydro International, Metito, United Utilities, and Xylem. “Since we recycle the funds, our sponsors do not expect a financial return on investment. They also rely on Isle’s expertise to make decisions about the projects we fund.”

Financial risk is only part of the equation. Access to Isle Utilities’ team of experts also lends the credibility of a trusted third party. Since 2005, the firm has specialized in water innovation and due diligence, undertaking assessments of new technologies and, when appropriate, matching them to the end users who need them through end-user innovation forums such as the Technology Approval Group (or TAG). TAG currently operates in the UK, Europe, Australia, the Philippines, Singapore, Brazil, South Africa, and North America, with eight established TAG “regions” in the United States, engaging more than 300 utility and industrial end users worldwide.

“If the technology is credible and different from conventional solutions, we put it in front of organizations that are seeking new options. We don’t own any tech, we don’t take equity, and we keep our position as an honest broker so we can offer what is best, rather than a suite that we represent,” Burgess says. She adds that Isle used to believe that its matchmaking role ended with making introductions. “We quickly realized that adoption stalls for two main reasons: the cost, and the risk that it might not work. This is especially true for utilities that can’t afford to take risks with public funds.”

How it works

The Trial Reservoir allows Isle Utilities to provide a loan to the technology developer to undertake a trial with a potential client – this alleviates the cost issue for both parties. To ensure follow-through, however, there are conditions attached to the loan. Before the trial begins, there must be a commercial contract in place between the technology vendor and end-user that commits the end-user to implementing the technology – IF the trial is a success. Isle also requires that contract to include key performance indicators for the success of the trial. Both parties must agree how to measure success that will lead to a purchase.

“As a trusted third party, our team can help the parties negotiate the terms and establish reasonable criteria. It’s sometimes easier for us to have that conversation. We will also help the technology provider design, execute, and validate a technically viable trial,” Burgess explains.

At the end of the trial, Isle will provide an independent opinion. If the trial doesn’t meet the criteria, both parties can walk away, and the tech developer does not have to pay back the loan. If it’s a success, revenue flows to the tech developer, who pays the loan back to the Trial Reservoir to support a new project.

With successful outcomes, Isle will also support a joint marketing campaign through its channels, including the Water Action Platform, the World Water Innovation Forum, and the Utilities CEO Forum.

“Between these three channels, we reach about 1,700 professionals in just over 100 countries,” Burgess says. “For the tech developer, it’s a big win to have a utility champion and a compelling story. For the end user, it’s a way to show that they are taking concrete steps toward net zero goals. The story is inspiring to everyone.”

Interest and uptake

Since the Trial Reservoir launched a few months ago, more than 90 companies have come forward to request support for trials. Isle has approved five projects to commence, Burgess says, and there are another seven nearly ready to fund.

One of the projects involves eWater Services’ treatment, supply, and e-wallet billing and metering system, which provides consumers in Wellingaraba, The Gambia with potable water 24/7 using solar power and gravity. With pre-paid SmartTags, users can visit SmartTaps that dispense water and deduct credit. Local technicians maintain the system and local shops sell credit. Each SmartTap dispenses 1000L/d and each litre saves 3.03kg CO₂ equivalent in reduced fossil fuel use. The trial supplies 2,500 previously unserved consumers and eliminates the use of paraffin and charcoal for boiling water at home.

“We’re excited to get these projects moving and validate their success, especially when it comes to achieving metrics around net zero. Removing the funding barrier paves the way for exciting opportunities for impact.”

The future looks bright for the Trial Reservoir, Burgess adds. “I don’t think we’ll solve climate change. However, with the increasing emphasis on achieving net-zero carbon in more and more countries, the demand and attraction for new solutions is growing. As projects make their way through this process, I expect that our initiative will continue to grow and have impact, too. If the Reservoir gets bigger, we can be bolder.”