Power play

It was telling that one of the first actions of Barack Obama on entering office was to herald a sea change in the US government’s policy on climate change and carbon emissions. Within 100 hours of his inauguration he had announced that he expected federal agencies to make all government buildings far more energy efficient. He had a target in mind as well, hoping to achieve energy savings of up to $2 billion (£1.5 billion) per year alongside a reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases blamed for global warming. 

So, he’s not only the man of the year, but also a man of the times. Reducing CO2 is, in many people’s eyes, the most important challenge facing us. Indeed, reductions in carbon emissions and reduced energy costs are already amongst the most important objectives for the owners, builders, occupiers and designers of commercial property in the UK. It was telling that 2008 saw the UK government latch on properly to the fact that buildings are responsible for around half of the UK’s energy consumption and carbon emissions. Last spring, the government launched an inquiry into the environmental performance of commercial and industrial property. Even the Chancellor got in on the act during his budget speech on 11 March, announcing that by 2019 he would like all non-domestic buildings to be carbon neutral.

January 2010 will see the Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC) come into effect, the emissions trading scheme designed to encourage organisations with an electricity consumption of over 6000MW/h to reduce their CO2 emissions. It comes in the wake of other schemes such as revised BREEAM standards and the BRE’s work with the DCLG clarifying elements of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) and in particular the Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) that are its most widely talked about element.

No conflict

Mike Bird of Cambridge based breathegroup believes that there is no conflict between meeting environmental concerns and running a commercial sound organisation. “Far from it”, he says. “Over recent months we’ve seen calls in the media for firms not to neglect their environmental objectives as a result of the uncertainty in the economy. These calls have come from a wide range of sources and especially from professionals. Welcome though these calls are, they can ignore a very important principle. The two objectives aren’t mutually exclusive and saving energy and saving money are often one and the same thing by definition.”

The various government schemes and legislation are essential in encouraging organisations to do their bit, but the business case is very strong in any case. “We should certainly expect the current economic climate to focus attention on all areas of cost saving and energy use is no exception”, says Mike. “There are many things a firm can do to save energy, but one of the most commonly overlooked in my experience is the carelessly or inadvertently left-on array of computer and telecoms equipment at a typical workstation.”

The costs of this can be daunting. Take a typical desktop configuration of PC, phone and PDA charger, light and shared printer. According to desktop power specialist Office Electrics, at current energy prices it costs around £80 a year to run that equipment. Yet research from Harris Interactive shows that around 60% of PCs are habitually left on overnight. Meanwhile Nokia has estimated that around two thirds of energy use by mobile phones is waste caused by leaving chargers in a live socket. The potential for savings is enormous, both in terms of cost and carbon dioxide.

“Awareness of the issue is growing,” says Mike Bird. “Certainly we discuss the issue more and more with clients and it has now become an important part of our consultancy work alongside other energy saving initiatives. There is a management issue here of course, but there are also systems that can be introduced that can manage power intelligently. These include EMOS from Office Electrics which starts up the workstation when an employee swipes in to a building and then powers down equipment when they leave. So there is zero consumption when products are not in use. The system also interacts with other parts of the network so that PCs can be switched on at set times for maintenance and backups. What is equally impressive from our point of view is that the EMOS system reports on cost savings, so organisations can see where they are saving money. This is a simple but important and extremely cost effective part of the wider picture which will increasingly rely on finding similar links between wider ethical issues and plain good business.”

Technical solutions

Of course, some solutions are technical, some are not. According to Neil Harrison of RS Components, one of the UK’s largest suppliers of commercial light fittings and building management systems, the management of light fittings is just as important as the hardware itself. “At the most obvious yet all too often neglected level, we should all use as much natural light as possible and remember to turn the lights off when they’re not in use” he claims. “Some products exist that help to manage these important factors. For example, motion sensors will turn off lights when they are not needed and daylight compensation controllers can vary light levels automatically depending on the availability of daylight in different parts of the office.”

But it’s also important to remember that the performance of individuals is important. “Any such scheme should bear in mind the way that different people prefer their lighting,” says Neil. “Some people are mushrooms requiring very little light, others only seem to flourish under bright lights. Photocells are available which can provide a degree of personal control, but in many cases the only solution is a bit of give and take from everybody. Most organisations work very well on this grown-up basis.

“Cost, cleaning, maintenance and asset management are also big factors, of course. You should also look at issues such as whole life costing and performance. For example, you can specify to a certain lux level but through usage lamps can reduce in their performance, especially if they are of an inferior quality which can have an impact on performance and so on efficiency. You must also take care that specifications are not so complex that you need to stock 35 types of lamp which is also inefficient and potentially wasteful.”

According to Neil, the objectives of both government and the organisation in meeting green objectives rely on a holistic approach. “We can use the right products and take control of some aspects of energy efficiency with the right systems, but there is also an issue of collective responsibility. I know people are people and we all make mistakes and do things like leaving phones charging endlessly and leaving lights on, so there is an educational and management issue involved as well. It’s complicated and this is a road not just paved with good intentions. There is a strong business case to be made for effective design and enlightened management.”