Meet edie’s Energy Management Leader 2019: James Tiernan, Unite Students

With entries now open for edie's Sustainability Leaders Awards 2020, this new feature series showcases the achievements of the 2019 winners and reveals their secrets to success. Up next: Unite Students' group energy & environment manager James Tiernan, our Energy Management Leader of 2019.

Meet edie’s Energy Management Leader 2019: James Tiernan, Unite Students

(L-R): Awards compere Michaela Strachan

James, who has been working for student accommodation firm Unite Students for more than seven years, was nominated for this edie award due to his work nurturing a committed team of energy professionals and achieving buy-in for ambitious actions across the business, from a grassroots level to senior management.

Since joining Unite, James has created a clear but comprehensive strategy, recognised as central to the overall business plan. Focusing on maximising the business benefits of reducing environmental impacts, it aims to create efficient buildings, promote responsible behaviour and ensure good utilities management. The framework notably includes ambitious science-based energy and carbon targets.

Using innovative solutions to deliver broader benefits – not just energy savings – James has shown how energy efficiency can help create the ‘Great Properties, Great People and Great Service’ needed to fulfil Unite Students’ ‘Home for Success’ business purpose. Rather than simply targeting low-hanging fruit, James’s vision of a comprehensive, data-led energy efficiency programme has been a huge success: more than £30m investment has already been implemented, with a further £10m set to be made by the end of 2019. This has delivered significant savings and easily demonstrates compliance with ESOS and MEES.

A robust process of identifying and then testing energy efficiency measures to ensure they deliver consistent and reliable benefits with minimal disruption, before then successfully deploying them, has earned James the confidence of the company. Accurate business case projections based on sound intelligence and technical knowledge from in-house trials have put business cases on a firm foundation. Coupled with effective and proportionate measurement and verification, they have enabled James to show savings delivered that could have been obscured by other factors including weather, occupancy, disposals, new-openings and utility prices.

The use of appropriate metrics, including ‘energy/carbon-per-bedroom-per-year’, helps Unite Students track progress towards targets: savings of 8.8% in electricity per bed and12.4% electricity per m2 from 2014 to 2018, and absolute combined scope 1+2 (location-based) emissions falling by 24% in this period. This equates to a cumulative saving of more than £2m for electricity alone. This has set James and his team up to begin working towards ISO50001.

More generally, James received praise from our judging panel for his work in growing a motivated and talented team who feel empowered and are trusted to help deliver the company’s energy strategy, and also for his work in developing Unite’s broader sustainability strategy, ‘Up to uS’. Since the strategy’s launch, Unite Students has recorded year-on-year improvements in CDP, GRESB and other ESG Ratings. Judges were particularly impressed with the emphasis which ‘Up to uS’ places on awareness and behaviour change, placing them on par with physical infrastructure improvements. This approach can also be seen in James’s wider approach to sustainability and energy, with his colleagues praising his ability to drive engagement across the board, from the front-line to the top-level of the boardroom

Under James’s leadership, Unite Students has leveraged its position to forge key strategic partnerships and drive positive energy-related change outside of its own operations. James championed Unite joining the Innovation Gateway, harnessing this unique and powerful partnership to source innovative solutions to the business’s energy and sustainability challenges, and feeding the pipeline of future projects. By trialling new solutions in-house under controlled conditions, James’ team have built trust and ensured solutions perform and deliver before wider-scale deployment. They have additionally worked with the NUS on its ‘Green Impact’ scheme for private student accommodation – an initiative which has innovative and sector-leading ‘Positive Impact’ programme addressing a wider range of sustainability themes.

“[Energy management] is something we’ve always tried to do to help Unite Students be the best it can; to deliver a real benefit to the business as well as to our environmental impact,” James told edie.“To be recognised for that is great. It’s not what I’ve set out to do. I’ve set out to make a difference….”

What the judges said: “James won this award for his successful engagement with students through his ingenious concept of ‘sustainability by stealth’. The judges appreciated James’s pursuit of a science-based target along with his highly methodical and comprehensive approach to driving energy improvements.”

edie’s 2020 Sustainability Leaders Awards

Now entering their 13th year for 2020, the RSA-accredited Sustainability Leaders Awards are sure to be one of the biggest nights of the year in the sustainability and energy space, with some exciting new categories added to recognise excellence across the spectrum of sustainable business.   

The 2020 Sustainability Leaders are now OPEN for entries. The entry deadline is Friday 27 September 2019. The Awards will then take place on the night of 5 February 2020 at the Park Plaza London, Westminster. 


edie Staff 

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