Change is inevitable but out of change comes opportunities

August 4, 2021

An exclusive Interview with Steve Vick, Chairman of Steve Vick International, on his experience in the gas industry, his thoughts about the Government’s Ten Point Plan and the future of Hydrogen.

How did your career begin within the gas industry?

Apart from 3 years working in research at Heriot Watt university in Edinburgh, I have spent the rest of my working life in the gas industry. My career started in 1975 when I joined Scottish Gas, part of the then nationalised British Gas, working in the HQ network analysis department of the distribution function. I moved on from network analysis to the Edinburgh and Borders District where I gained practical experience at the sharp end of laying and repairing the gas distribution network.

What are your thoughts on the potential move to Hydrogen?

The government’s recent Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution outlined their desire to pioneer hydrogen heating trials. This will start with a Hydrogen Neighbourhood and scale up to a potential Hydrogen Town before the end of this decade. This is encouraging for those companies working in the gas industry and I believe that Hydrogen is a real possibility on the current network. At the time of my joining the gas industry the conversion from town to natural gas was just coming to an end and the distribution side of the industry were preoccupied dealing with the problem of gas leakage from cast iron joints. It now seems, as my career is coming to its end, the industry finds itself with the prospect of going back to the future in another conversion programme, with the network being prepared to accept a manufactured gas once again, hydrogen.

Change is inevitable and I am a firm believer that with change comes opportunities. It was the move to natural gas and the problem of joint leakage that gave me my first opportunity. I was recruited by ALH Systems Ltd to work on the development of their joint sealing products. This period introduced me to the technology of resins and to the world of British Gas research and development, standing me in good stead for the future in my own business.

During this period, in the late seventies, the deadly problem of gas explosions hit the headlines and the need to replace the cast iron network, so vulnerable to brittle fractures, became a priority for the gas industry. This presented me with the opportunity to develop some ideas of my own. I took the plunge, in June 1981, to set up my own company to provide solutions to the practical problems gas engineers were facing in searching for “no dig” methods of pipe replacement. We have come a long way since then and, this year, Steve Vick International celebrate their 40th year in the industry.

How have SVI adapted to change in the past and what advice would you give companies looking towards a possible future with hydrogen?

When the gas industry moved to natural gas, British Gas looked for ways to reline the old cast iron mains in order to avoid leakage. Getting new ideas from an outside company trialled and approved could be a long and tortuous exercise but, in a foretaste of the structure we have now, the individual regions of British Gas did undertake their own local developments. Both the north west and south east regions of British Gas carried out independent trials of a method of relining the cast iron network with P.E. while keeping the cast iron live whilst so doing; the live mains insertion process as we know it today was born. The biggest problem both regions had in successfully launching the new process was finding a reliable sealant to seal the annulus between the old cast iron and new P.E. pipes. This was my big opportunity and the development and application of resin foams to seal both inserted mains, and later, inserted services, became the heart of the company’s development and production programme. Without the change to natural gas this opportunity may never have arisen.

The privatisation of British Gas in 1986 brought great changes and spawned the era of entrepreneur ship in the newly privatised company with it buying or taking stakes in gas companies around the world. This gave us opportunities to introduce our products to those companies such as Metro Gas in Argentina, Mahanager Gas in India and closer to home, BG Deutschland in the former East Germany.

The beginning of the new millennium brought a new opportunity to the company with the birth of the 30/30 mains replacement programme. We have spent the last 20 years honing the products we supply for mains and service insertion techniques.

My advice is not to fear change but to embrace it. If the trials in hydrogen are successful and the UK adopt a hydrogen network, opportunities will arise. The key is to remain flexible and adaptable and seek out the openings for innovation and diversification.

What are your thoughts on the government’s Ten Point Plan?

The recently published government document, The Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, offers some real opportunities. The government’s commitment to the introduction of hydrogen into the gas network signals a bright future for the industry we have served for the past 40 years. The old metallic gas distribution network will need to be fully replaced to enable it to safely transport hydrogen, potentially giving us, and our fellow companies in the gas industry, work to do beyond the end of the 30/30 programme in 2032.

Foam cap-end installation at Harwell BEPO storage block

Foam cap-end installation at Harwell BEPO storage block

For us, our more recent entry into the nuclear industry is also given a boost by the government’s commitment to generating significant amounts of our growing need for electricity through building new nuclear power plants.

The government’s ten-point plan emphasises their commitment to innovation. Their vision “to be a global leader in the technologies needed to decarbonise our economies and transition to net zero” should give plenty of opportunity for the next generations of our business, and other organisations within the industry, and secure their long-term futures in the new green energy world.