A light bulb moment for the planet?

Nick Howard

Nick Howard IEng MEI MSLL Chartered Energy Manager

We must – and can – take matters into our own hands on climate change rather than wait for governments to deliver, says Nick Howard IEng MEI MSLL Chartered Energy Manager and member of the Energy Institute’s Energy Management Panel.

If it were possible to draw only one conclusion from the climate change debates of the past few years, it could be that politicians and national governments won’t solve the planetary crisis alone.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process is case in point. The 2015 COP21 in Paris was remembered for its outstanding political goodwill, optimism about reducing emissions and limiting global warming and close cooperation between the USA and China, the biggest emitters among developed and developing countries. By contrast, three years on, December’s COP24 in Katowice, Poland displayed dampened enthusiasm. Although the delegates successfully managed to deliver the “rulebook” to implement the emission reduction promises agreed in Paris, the summit demonstrated that it’s much easier for politicians to set targets than to agree on how to reach them, implement actions and measure progress.

It’s all the more surprising given that the scientific understanding around the scale of the risk of climate change to assets, investments and the public is more acute than ever. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was downplayed by some politicians gathered in Poland, despite it suggesting the world is on a devastating track to overshoot the targets of the Paris climate agreement and warm by 3°C by the end of the century.

The salutary lesson from these developments is that companies, businesses and local authorities all need to ride in behind the ambition set out in Paris rather than wait for the politics to deliver. Together, by taking the initiative and leading by example, we can make those intentions real, making real inroads into emissions and building resilience against climate change impacts. Most specifically, we must focus on translating rapidly evolving and far-reaching technological innovations into day-to-day life.

Too often ignored amid the noisy, polarised debate about nuclear, renewables and shale gas is the Cinderella of decarbonisation – the ‘first fuel’ – energy efficiency. It is a source of energy in its own right, in which energy users can make no-regrets investments ahead of other more complex or costly energy sources. Indeed, there’s been something of a quiet revolution under way in the UK – highlighted by Carbon Brief’s recent number crunching that found electricity generation last year was down to the same level as the mid-1990s, despite a growing economy, due largely to improvements in energy efficiency.

At an organisational level, energy efficiency efforts are understood as improving the ability to reduce energy consumption, based on the results of energy audits and surveys, for example a mandatory Energy Savings Opportunity Scheme (ESOS) assessment, the forthcoming Streamlined Energy and Carbon Reporting (SECR) or, globally, certifying an ISO 50001 Energy Management System.

Unfortunately, the take-up of energy efficiency projects by some industries in the UK has been slow, in many cases glacial or non-existent. This may be due to political uncertainties, or difficulties justifying funding or capital expenditure where margins are low and international competition high.

Additionally, present legal energy reduction schemes such as ESOS and Display Energy Certificates (DECs) don’t have teeth. There is no compulsion to implement measures identified through the schemes’ mandatory surveys. The new reporting scheme, SECR, which from April 2019 will replace the Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC) Energy Efficiency Scheme, is yet another missed opportunity for the mandatory installation of energy efficiency measures by businesses and organisations.

Serious actions are required to better encourage organisations to install efficiency projects and fulfil energy saving opportunities. After all, the ‘O’ in ESOS stands for Opportunity! Phase 2 of ESOS, which is in its compliance period between now and 5 December, shouldn’t just be a tick box exercise. Instead, energy managers should use it as an opportunity to review decarbonisation strategies and explore long-term energy saving possibilities, such as demand-side response or smart appliances.

Additionally, there is a need to revise the ESOS regulations for future phases 3 and 4. Ideally, the scheme will be complemented by a legal requirement for energy saving measures identified in the ESOS assessment to be put into practice, not on the shelf to gather dust. Capital funding support is actually already available – Salix Funding is an independent, publicly funded company, providing the public sector with interest-free loans for energy efficiency projects; the Carbon Trust provides loans for private organisations. Tax incentives could also be used to help fund these measures. Similarly, implementation of SECR should be encouraged as a way for business and industry to gain economic benefits, improve productivity and cut energy costs at the same time as reducing carbon emissions.

One of the best places to start is lighting – responsible for 20% of all the electricity used in UK commercial and industrial buildings. Almost three in four buildings have outdated lighting installations, so it’s no surprise that installation of more efficient lighting was the most common recommendation from the first phase of ESOS assessments. A lighting upgrade or replacement can be simple and inexpensive but may lead to large energy and cost saving impacts.

Lighting technology has been developing rapidly over recent years, driving remarkable cost reductions. Traditional incandescent bulbs are fast being replaced by a new generation of lighting such as light-emitting diodes (LEDs) or compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs). The Energy Institute’s new Lighting Guide* is a great place to get the full picture.

It’s clear that LEDs are now the standout technology for saving costs and energy in many circumstances. Research by IHS Markit showed the use of LEDs to illuminate buildings and outdoor spaces reduced the total global CO2 emissions of lighting by an estimated 570 million tons in 2017. This is equivalent to shutting down 162 coal-fired power plants! Overall, LED component and lighting companies can claim credit for reducing the global carbon footprint by an estimated 1.5% in 2017. The share is much higher if we consider energy saved by LEDs in sectors other than the building lighting market, such as automotive and consumer technology.

Using efficient lighting products could save up to 75% of the electricity consumed for lighting in the UK each year and correspondingly reduce energy costs. A focus on practical energy saving – efficient lighting, heating and insulation – will not just help mitigate the disappointment felt by many at the failure of governments to deliver, but also I hope mobilise more people on the ground to take steps that really can making a difference to energy use, carbon emissions and the bottom line.

The Energy Institute’s new Lighting Good Practice Guide can be found at https://knowledge.energyinst.org/collections/energy-management

This blog first appeared as an article for The Energyst.

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