WATCH: How can business harness energy innovation?

With companies increasingly moving past energy efficiency measures and exploring innovative energy technologies such as battery storage, a group of business experts recently met in Birmingham to discuss what the future of energy looks like for the UK's business community. Here, edie rounds up their key takeaways.

Last Thursday (1 November), more than 50 energy professionals from a range of sectors met at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Birmingham for edie’s inaugural Energy Leaders Club conference. Called SPARK!, the event saw energy managers and practitioners collaborate to share ideas on how sustainable energy ideas can make way for bold action.

Kicking off the agenda for the day from the Energy Institute’s president Steve Holliday, who delivered a keynote speech on the current state of business energy in the UK – and how it has changed over the past six decades. Holliday, who formerly worked as chief executive at the National Grid, noted that the UK had benefited from a “chaotic revolution”.

After a speech from BEIS’s director of energy efficiency Ben Golding detailing the Government’s vision for a net-zero built environment, delegates at the conference then had the chance to quiz energy experts from hospitality giant Whitbread, supermarket Tesco, construction firm Balfour Beatty Kilpatrick and the University of Warwick as to what this pace and direction could look like.

Here, edie has rounded up five of the key factors which are set to shape the business approach to energy in the near future, as well as an exclusive video quizzing delegates on what energy innovations to look out for.

1) Seizing all opportunities for efficiency

While new and innovative technologies such as energy storage may seem like a tempting way to bolster your organisation’s approach to energy and sustainability, panellists at the SPARK! Event agreed that seizing every opportunity to improve energy efficiency is an essential move to make before investing in expensive devices.

“No matter what the future holds, there is always going to be a place for efficiency,” Tesco’s group head of energy for stores Anna Menezes-Dowson said. “The worst thing we can do is to think of as many of these really forward-thinking technologies as possible while forgetting to get the basics right.”

“I think there’s still plenty of energy efficiency opportunities out there,” Whitbread’s energy manager for Premier Inn and Restaurants UK Ross Greenhalgh added. “With innovation, I think people can sometimes think too far beyond the obvious.”  

Panellists concluded that businesses were unlikely to reap the full extent of the financial and environmental benefits of low-carbon technologies such as ground-source heat pumps or battery storage without implementing effective efficiency measures first.

2) Balancing automation with behaviour change


The University of Warwick’s head of energy and sustainability Joel Cardinal argued that behaviour change is likely to “always” be part of an energy manager’s job, as not all efficiency can be achieved through automation.

“We need to find out how the case for energy efficiency can be made with human beings,” Cardinal explained. “Technology is valuable, but we must define how we use it.”

The University notably uses gamification to encourage academics and students on all-inclusive accommodation package to act to reduce their electricity and hot water consumption, ranking each student and faculty using a scorecard and awarding prizes to those achieving top rankings.

Tesco’s Menezes-Dowson agreed, citing the fact that the chain now requires all in-store staff to take action to drive energy efficiency as part of their day-to-day job. The supermarket has trained more than 4,000 staff from its Bakery and Hot Counter departments on best practice for energy management under its Energy Matters scheme – recording savings of 318,181kWh and 139tCO2e in bakeries alone during the first six weeks of the initiative.

3) Investing in flexible assets

With UK Power Networks estimating that demand for flexibility within its licence areas will exceed 200MW by 2023 as energy storage solutions are installed in more homes and businesses, panellists agreed that now is the time for businesses leading the sustainable energy agenda to explore flexible assets.

Whitbread’s Greenhalgh explained that, as it moves towards the end of its energy efficiency journey, Premier Inn is currently exploring the feasibility of decarbonising heat, using “smart heating” systems that use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to optimise room temperatures and installing energy storage technologies across its estate. The chain will begin by installing battery storage technology at its Edinburgh Park hotel this month.

“There is obviously a future for flexibility – how this plays out with systems and networks is up for debate,” Greenhalgh said. “Will it be a battery in every home and every other building? Will it be at the point of generation? Will it involve measures like district battery solutions? It remains to be seen as to where that will sit, especially as the business case is a little bit ropey at the moment.”

4) Sourcing or generating renewable power


Amid warnings from scientists that we have just 12 years to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5C – and that doing so will require “unprecedented changes in all areas of society” – the panellists emphasised the role which renewables will play in the energy “revolution”.

Tesco’s Menezes-Dowson emphasised the fact that the company has committed to source 100% renewable power for its operations through The Climate Group’s RE100 initiative in a bid to meet its science-based emissions targets, and encouraged other firms to follow suit.

“There is no way we are going to [meet our science-based target] without looking at decentralised and onsite generation as well as offsite power purchase agreements (PPAs), which are an extremely exciting area to look at because they change the way we look at energy management,” she said. “Putting flexibility side-by-side with renewables makes even more sense.”

Whitbread’s Greenhalgh agreed, noting that Premier Inn’s combined solar capacity is set to surpass 3MW by the end of 2018.

5) Finding innovations that work for your business

Finally, the panellists explained that an innovation which could generate significant cost and carbon savings for one sector or organisation could be unsuitable for another, while urging delegates to explore which technologies would suit their businesses before making an investment.

Balfour Beatty Kilpatrick’s energy efficiency manager Maria Spyrou said she was particularly keen to explore technologies that allow the business to sell excess energy back to the grid, for example, while Tesco’s Menezes-Dowson cited refrigeration technology inspired by Formula One racing as the “most exciting” development for the supermarket.

Whitbread’s Greenhalgh, meanwhile, urged delegates to “innovate with what they already have” and to avoid getting caught up in “vanity projects” to source the most ground-breaking innovations.

For Premier Inn, this approach has involved installing pressure sensors – typically used within the aviation sector – to its air ventilation system in order to monitor energy efficiency and identify “hotspots” where filters require cleaning.

Following the panel discussion, edie’s editorial team interviewed delegates to find out what the future of business energy looked like for them. This video rounds up some of their insights. 

Sarah George

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