The evolution of energy is the next big challenge for facilities managers

Louis Burford, head of solution sales and UK optimisation Centrica.

Over the last decade, energy management has become a more prominent part of the job description for facilities managers. In many of the businesses we work with, we’re seeing the role expand to include management and even procurement of energy, so FMs are having to adapt quickly to this additional responsibility.

As if that wasn’t enough, appetite for more advanced energy systems is increasing, adding an extra layer to the challenge that FMs face. As businesses seek to become more intelligent about their energy use, it’s facilities managers that will be charged with spearheading projects to not only reduce consumption but to make the energy they use more sustainable.

The challenge

We recently polled 200 large businesses from across the UK and found that almost 90 per cent expect that half of their energy requirements will be fulfilled by local or renewable sources by 2025. On top of this, 80 per cent expected at least a quarter of their total energy need to be generated on-site by the same deadline.

If the predictions our survey uncovered are realised, it’s likely that the emissions targets set for businesses by the government’s Clean Growth Plan will be met considerably earlier than expected. In fact, more than a quarter of the businesses we surveyed had already invested in some form of onsite power generation and another third said they were considering it. Clearly, firms are not only acknowledging the need to approach energy consumption in a more sustainable way but are also actively exploring the methods that will achieve their goals.

This will have obvious environmental benefits, but a more strategic approach to energy will also be vital to maintaining businesses’ competitiveness. Most (86 per cent) of the businesses in our survey said they expected ‘energy-ethical’ behaviour/operations to become essential to their future brand identity, with many already proactively changing how they use energy to attract customers. As more businesses recognise the strategic value of ‘better’ energy use, pressure to implement new technology that can increase efficiency and reduce emissions will mount. 

So, what approaches are businesses taking and which will suit yours best?

A lot of organisations have already made significant headway on reducing energy costs. Competitive procurement processes mean that the savviest companies are already getting the best price they can from the market. Moving beyond procurement efficiencies, there are real gains to be made in bringing down usage and investing in on-site generation and storage.

A vital first step is identifying what business systems would benefit from new energy technology – it’s crucial that investment is channeled intelligently in a way that lines up with the organisation’s energy needs as well as its wider business objectives.

Insight to action

As with any major project, metrics and success benchmarks need to be set. Implementing a more advanced energy system is no different. To that end, energy insight is an absolute must. 

Sub-metering is sometimes used as a way of tracking how energy is used by different processes in an organisation. However, this tends to be expensive and installation requires equipment shut-down. It will also only offer a snapshot of energy usage whenever the sub-meter is read, rather than a constant flow of information.

For these reasons, many businesses favour smart sensors as a way of collecting intelligence on energy use. They can be installed easily on any equipment that produces or uses energy to provide data in real time. This data is stored digitally so it can be viewed through an easy-to-use dashboard, giving the facilities manager a detailed map of how their organisation uses energy, making it easier to pinpoint where investment in new tech could be most effective.

The range of energy technology out there means that choosing the right solutions for a particular business is complex. Basing these decisions on smart sensor data vastly increases the likelihood of selecting the right approach and achieving the best return on investment. Often this can be done in partnership with an energy provider who should be able to help interpret the data and choose the most appropriate solution to implement.

Investing in the right tech

Upgrading to newer energy technology will be part of the strategy for many facilities managers once they’ve gone through the process of collecting and analysing smart sensor data. Pinpointing the right technology is always going to be a challenge which is why working with an expert is often advisable – different energy solutions are designed to achieve different goals so what’s right for one business won’t necessarily work as well for another.

Combined heat and power units (CHP), for example, generate heat and electricity simultaneously on-site. They can be incredibly effective at reducing energy cost but aren’t suitable for all types of business.

Only a third of the fuel burned by a traditional power plant, connected to the National Grid, reaches the end user as energy due to the inefficiencies of distributing electricity over long distances. CHPs not only cut down the travel distance by generating power on-site but, because they’re designed to make use of the heat byproduct of power generation, they also capture any ‘wasted’ energy as heat. This heat can then be put to use fulfilling a secondary need – a leisure centre or hotel’s need to heat swimming pools, for example.

Other types of business will find that different technologies are more appropriate. As renewable energy solutions become more plentiful and more affordable, smart sensor insight will help to identify opportunities where these technologies can be introduced without affecting operations.

One of the main drawbacks to solar or wind power is that they are weather dependent and, therefore, can’t be relied on for the consistent delivery of electricity. Making the most of these solutions could mean identifying non-critical systems that can afford an intermittent power supply – temperature control systems in a warehouse that stores non-perishables, for example. 

Investment in on-site battery storage can take this to the next level by facilitating constant energy provision from renewable sources. A small manufacturer, for example, could store surplus solar energy generated during the day in order to bolster supply overnight, or during peak price periods. Doing so maximises the on-site usage of renewable energy – improving the commercial viability of on-site generation and storage systems.  

Getting ahead of the game

Our poll highlighted that a more sophisticated approach to energy use is high on the agenda for many organisations. For the facilities managers working in these businesses, implementing this change will soon become a key focus – if it isn’t already.

Yes, taking ownership of energy within a business is a major responsibility, but the advantages that can be delivered for the company if managed correctly mean the payback for facilities managers is potentially huge. The evolution of energy presents an opportunity to bring about real, positive change within a business that will ultimately elevate facilities management in the eyes of the board and make it a more strategically important role.

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