Recession drives energy saving

Copyright: David Lawson - first published Financial Times November 1994

Energy-saving has taken on a significance akin to  the hunt for the holy grail. This has less to do with the semi-religious frenzy over global warming, however, than grinding weight of economic recession. In the cost-cutting frenzy induced by falling profits, occupiers began to realise how much they were paying to heat the surrounding neighbourhood. Despite multiple oil-price shocks, many were still living in the era of cheap fuel. Luckily, energy-saving has proven a lot more attainable than the mythical grail.

  The campaign to curb air-conditioning  has grabbed the headlines.  Yet  supporters claim it accounts for less than 4 per cent of the energy consumed in commercial buildings and produces less than 1 per cent of the UK output of carbon dioxide. Choice of air-conditioning also applies mainly to new construction. But the bulk of the problem lies with existing buildings, whichever way they are serviced. These are being tackled with a less glamorous, but more productive, campaign of uprating the management of energy systems.

  Energy-saving schemes are not new.  The Vickers tank plant in Newcastle, for instance, was worked over more than 10 years ago by Ryder Nicklin, architects and engineers. Draught-proofing, integrated energy controls and low-energy lighting cost £6 million but cut bills by 90 per cent to £70,000 a year.  But this kind of awareness of energy costs is spreading out of the manufacturing sector, says Ken Ordish, managing director of ESS Projects. Groups like NatWest Bank and Bass Breweries have commissioned energy "audits" of  buildings ranging from high street branches to administration blocks, pubs and hotels.

  Other factors than the blitz on costs may be helping this change. The Building Research Establishment has created an Environmental Assessment Method (Breeam) for testing the "greeness" of buildings, which groups like the BBC and London Transport have promised to use. Just as important, however, is the work the BRE's Energy Conservation Support Unit (Brecsu) is doing to get such issues discussed at board level.

  Occupiers often have the in-house specialists who know the problems, but they do not have the communication skills - or status - to get the message across, says Brecsu. It has persuaded 1,500 top companies to commit themselves to "re-education".  Decisions on energy-saving are  coming down from the top, says Mr Ordish.  Now his part of the industry has to solve problems that arose because service engineers were not consulted in the past. "It is often a case of making existing controls work properly," he says.  "If the people who run buildings were consulted earlier by mechanical and electrical engineers in the planning of buildings this would not happen."

  Privatisation is also having a big impact. Schools and hospitals find that the freedom of opting out of state control also brings the burdens of paying big bills. Two trusts set up in the Nottingham area, Healthcare and  Community, discovered an energy bill of close to £1m on 28 premises ranging from large hospitals to small day centres spread across the city. They also faced a responsibility to match the government's request to industry for 15 per cent energy cuts over the next five years. 

  Phil Winstanley, the energy manager, will be plugging one gap by early involvement with premises now being built. Existing premises will be drawn together into a central building service network under which conditions can be remotely monitored by desktop computer or the service engineers' portable laptops.  One problem is that two kinds of control equipment are in use - Andover Infinity on larger sites and and Satchwell on others. This is being tackled by more systematic specification in future, but that leaves the task of stitching two  existing systems together. ESS has installed building energy management systems (Bems) which should soon be able to integrate control through a CdC data engine. It should also be able to cope if other brands of control equipment are required in future.

  Tight budgets  mean the cost of installation must be covered by energy savings, and  this has already started happening. The last energy bill came to just over £1m, which Mr Winstanley estimates as an 18 per cent cut on two years ago. This should fall further as ESS works its way through the remaining buildings.   Each has been prioritised through an initial monitoring exercise which gave ESS a window into the trusts' systems from its base 25 miles away. Consumption profiles were built up from  physical factors and energy use. Payback periods were decided in co-operation with the finance departments on a cost ratio basis.

  Struggling with poorly specified or obsolete technology is a common factor. Chesterfield's Saltergate Health Centre had to keep the heating on permanently because parts were impossible to find, running up bills of more than £15,000 a year. But new technology can now cope with this sort of problem. Fitting Bems saved the centre the equivalent of more than £2,700 in the first 10 months, says ESS. The system is intelligent enough to adjust water heating to different levels according to requirements for each part of the building. It even calculates when to turn on so the temperature is correct at opening time.

 Besides a local display board, the controls can be adjusted over the phone by  the health authority's district energy manager. This helped cut costs by 18 per cent last year, when the older system would have reacted to the unusually colder weather by pushing the bill 10 per cent higher.   Monitoring is a crucial part of energy management which is often overlooked, says Mr Ordish. "Settings may be ideal when a building is first occupied but uses - and users - can change."

  Many occupiers will have to remember that energy saving  is an ongoing task involving regular audits to ensure  the systems are working correctly. Those currently driven by concern for the environment may forget this as fashions change. Then the cycle will come again as recession - or a fuel tax - finds them rediscovering the need for cost-cutting.