5 top tips for choosing onsite technologies on the road to net-zero
With businesses under pressure to minimise energy costs, improve resilience and accelerate decarbonisation, what role can onsite technologies and systems play? Here, edie rounds up best-practice advice from the business leaders on this vitally important topic.
When the UK Government first announced its legally binding net-zero target, it was regarded as world-leading. Aside from encouraging similar commitments from nations across the globe, the target will require businesses of all sizes and sectors to accelerate decarbonisation work.
The private sector has been calling for clarity on how, exactly, businesses should approach the transition in terms of investment, timing and technology. But with energy costs rising, clean technology costs falling and off-grid opportunities becoming more viable, many leading firms have already begun deploying and scaling up tech-based solutions across there estate.
To that end, edie’s most recent webinar provided best-practice advice to those exploring onsite technologies for decarbonisation - from solar, to combined heat and power (CHP), ground-source heat pumps and carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.
Hosted in association with Carbon Clean and now available to stream on-demand, the hour-long session featured experts from Costain Group, Ibstock Brick and the Natural History Museum.
Here, edie rounds up five key takeaways from the session.
1) There is no silver bullet
All of the panellists for this session described the need for a mix of solutions and cautioned against waiting for a “silver bullet”. They were in agreement that different technologies can come together to solve a decarbonisation “jigsaw” and that, in some cases, nature-based solutions and behaviour change will also be needed.
This was particularly clear to see when Ibstock Brick’s group sustainability manager Michael McGowan was presenting; the building materials manufacturing sector is regarded as high-emission and hard-to-abate, so its decarbonisation pathway is multifaceted. McGowan outlined how improved energy efficiency and materials efficiency, along with renewable electricity procurement and sourcing recycled materials, lay the foundation for more high-tech approaches.
Ibstock Brick is exploring onsite and offsite solar; heat recovery systems; alternative fuels including hydrogen, and carbon capture and storage (CCS) to drive its own transition, and believes the wider sector will also benefit from these technologies.
2) Data is the foundation of decision-making
McGowan explained that Ibstock Brick was able to determine the level of decarbonisation each of these technologies could deliver – and when best to invest and install – by undertaking a detailed analysis of emission sources across the business, and of business cases for all technologies.
Costain’s Group Carbon Manager Lara Young, similarly, advised listeners to get a strong grip on their emissions and energy spend baseline before making decisions around technologies. She also described how collecting good-quality operational data once technologies are installed can help drive optimisation, build the business case for further investments and empower industry peers.
“We use data insights to inform where our biggest and greatest opportunities to reduce [emissions] are – and the areas where we need to start reducing now,” Young said, outlining Costain Group’s climate change action plan through to 2035.
“The data is able to highlight where the greatest opportunities are and where the baseline is… it’s not perfect… but that baseline can be improved as the data quality enhances. Also, it serves as a line in the sand, telling us where we are, where we need to get to and where the biggest hotspots are. From that, you can establish a key reduction plan.”
3) Balance agility and flexibility with long-term certainty
During his presentation, the Natural History Museum’s head of sustainability Wayne Hitchings described the organisation’s approach to financing, installing and operating onsite solar arrays at its Tring facility and a 2.4MWe CHP unit at its famous London base. The museum is notably targeting net-zero by 2035.
Hitchings explained that the CHP unit, installed in 2006 and co-located with two large boilers and absorption chillers, comes with 15-year contracts. The museum is currently out to tender for the 2021-2036 period.
During the Q&A session, Hitchings was asked how this approach could be viable, given that the definition of “best practice” is constantly changing as technology costs shift policy requirements are altered. He said that the museum is striving to build a flexible “energy partnership” with a common net-zero target, rather than taking a traditional contract approach.
“We need certainty going foreword; we need risk transfer over that amount of time,” Hitchings said. “I don’t think, for us, technologies will change that quickly. The things we need to reduce our carbon emissions are already there. The challenges lie in the cost models around them and having that time period actually allows us to have flexibility over as and when we are able to implement a technology change… whatever solution we come up with, it has to be flexible and scalable.”
4) Explore technology as a service if budgets are tight
The fourth and final presentation was from Carbon Clean’s co-founder and chief executive Aniruddha Sharma. He outlined how the major challenges for industrial firms exploring CCS often relate to upfront costs and a lack of space and argued that Carbon Clean’s technology, which is one-tenth of the size of traditional arrays and can bring the cost of capture down to $30 per tonne, can help to overcome these issues.
Another solution to cost challenges, he explained, is the emerging technology-as-a-service model. Building on the success of product rental and heat and light as a service, the CCS as-a-service market is growing rapidly, he said – and is now a “very realistic option”.
Sharma said: “In terms of business model innovation, we believe this will probably help the industrial amateurs solve some of the challenges they are facing today. Most companies start from ‘where are we going to find the investment? Where are we going to get the execution expertise?’ We’re saying ‘let’s work together to solve this’.”
5) Balance context-specific considerations with bravery
Each of the panellists represented organisations with hugely different contexts in terms of sectors, key emission sources and geographical areas of location. The Natural History Museum, for example, has three sites across the UK, including listed buildings, while Carbon Clean’s largest and most mature array is based at an industrial-scale chemical and fertiliser manufacturing plant in India.
Of course, this makes the business case for technology investment different on a case-by-case basis. All speakers encouraged attendees to properly consider their specific context to avoid stranded investments and to maximise decarbonisation opportunities. But the theme of leadership kept cropping up, also. Markets will only change if someone moves first, and, in many cases, this move will come from the private sector rather than policymakers, it was agreed.
Ibstock Brick’s McGowan said: “One of the things you have to keep in mind when you sign up to long-term projects is that you’ve got to ignore government because governments come and go. If you do what you always do well, as a manufacturer or whatever your function may be, it will impact on you. You’ve got to take a leap of faith.”