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The Net Zero Carbon Delusion

Jon Thompson

Head of Product Innovation

February 11, 2021

Over the past 12 months we have been inundated with Net Zero Carbon commitments. Before I get into why I think this is partly delusional, I want to take a moment to clarify my position on the topic in general.

There is no doubt whatsoever that this represents a monumental step forward in the fight to reverse climate change and transition to a low carbon economy. From tech unicorns and oil giants to some of the world's largest economies, it’s been truly mind blowing to watch the movement unfold.

However, I’m becoming increasingly concerned that the majority of these commitments lack substance. It’s just all too easy to say “we’ll be Net Zero Carbon by 2050”. In fact, it’s one of the few sustainability targets an organisation can make whilst knowing very little about their current level of emissions or what’s realistically achievable.

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Setting a specific emission reduction target of 20% or 30% requires a solid understanding of a portfolio's baseline consumption and what it will take to meet the objective. It’s concerning that a Net Zero commitment doesn’t require any of this. Throw a quick blog post together and send a copy to your PR team and you’re good to go!

It’s reassuring to see organisations such as the World Green Building Council providing some structure and regulation. They recently published their 5 part framework for committing to and reporting on Net Zero Carbon buildings which hit all the right notes in my opinion. But with organisations still able to make vague commitments with very little supporting information we still have a long way to go.

What matters most is how an organisation defines ‘Net Zero’ within their specific context. Is there any intention to systematically reduce the amount of energy consumed or is the plan to simply pay a load of cash to some half-baked offsetting scheme?

We also can’t forget that if we do reach Net Zero Carbon by 2050, there will undoubtedly be ‘free riders’ who have contributed nothing but still benefit from a decarbonised grid. And just like everyone else, there will be a nice tick next to their ‘Net Zero Carbon by 2050’ objective.

For most organisations, a large proportion of their carbon emissions will likely come from operational energy use in buildings. After all, the built environment accounts for nearly 40% of total energy consumption and carbon emissions globally. Improving building performance offers most organisations a relatively cost effective way to reduce its carbon footprint.

An organisation that is serious about operating energy efficient and ultimately Net Zero Carbon buildings will fully appreciate how much work there is to do. Buildings aren’t stored in the cloud, they’re physical entities that are mechanically complex. Energy consumption is not exchanged online, it powers our everyday lives. And we’re still holding out for that elusive machine learning algorithm that will tell us everything we need to know.

Those waiting for the digital revolution to sweep across our industry and make everything better will be left behind. A data driven approach is undoubtedly our best bet but we need to face the reality of what’s in front of us. There are some significant obstacles that must at least be considered, let alone overcome, before an organisation can commit to Net Zero. Let’s take a look at them in more detail.

Access to Building Performance Data

The introduction of smart metering was vitally important but with over 20 million meters installed across the UK alone, it’s frightening to see how much of this data goes to waste. The problem is that electricity and gas suppliers were responsible for most of the nationwide roll out and the subsequent relationship with data collectors.

It was structured this way to ensure mass adoption as suppliers already had existing relationships with their customers. But the huge drawback is that customers are now cut off from their data. Suppliers are understandably only concerned with a single monthly read to provide accurate invoices, not obtaining high resolution data to measure performance .

This means it’s near enough impossible to track down a building's energy data. You find yourself being passed from pillar to post by various organisations who claim not to have your data. The very best case is you manage to gain access to a portal that lets you download data one meter at a time. Which is unfortunately, as you’ll soon find out, a very ineffective way to gather building performance data.

The same is true for Building Management System (BMS) and sub-metering data. Installed as part of the original design specification and then forgotten about during handover and commissioning, the incredibly valuable data disappears into the void.

However challenging it may appear on the surface, there is a solution. The aim should be to take control of the data collection process. For main incoming meters, this means appointing a reputable data collector across your metering portfolio and dealing with them directly. BMS and sub metering data can be more fragmented but once again, it comes down to establishing relationships with the big players.

For this to scale, service providers, consultants and software vendors have to take responsibility for helping their customers access their building performance data.

Making sense of all that data

As the resolution and granularity of building performance data continues to increase, something we so desperately needed to happen, so does the level of expertise required to process it.

Now that we’ve thankfully moved on from monthly meter readings as the primary source of data for energy analysis, we face a new challenge. If you’re looking at a single building with a fairly modest installation of 30 sub meters you’ll be collecting over half a million data points a year. Imagine what this will look like for multiple years across entire portfolios.

Spreadsheets are quickly becoming redundant for analysing building performance.

There is a clear skills gap in our industry. Primarily an engineering focussed industry working with physical equipment in plant rooms, we tend to not be experts in data processing and analytics. One option would be to upskill energy and sustainability professions or hire non-industry data scientists who can provide the expertise. But this rarely solves the issue.

Instead, we should focus on empowering building performance experts with tools that can help them fulfil their potential in the digital age. We can do this by removing the need to process data manually and help them turn their data into actionable insights. Experts require information at their fingertips at the exact moment it’s needed.

Over the last few decades, building performance software has been engulfed by meaningless dashboards. While data visualisation is important, a bar chart is not going to change the world. We need industry specific tools that help people identify waste and opportunities for improvement. Our industry leaders should be using their time and expertise to make an impact, not manually downloading data from portals.

But energy data alone won’t cut it. Building performance software of the future must be able to take in data sets from across a building’s infrastructure. By contextualising consumption trends with data sets such as occupancy and air quality we can derive insights that were previously inconceivable..

Measuring Changes in Building Performance Overtime

When we talk about Net Zero Carbon buildings or simply making our buildings more energy efficient, it is underpinned by the ability to measure changes in building performance over time. As straightforward as it sounds, there are a number of intricacies lurking beneath the surface.

The concern is that when organisations are making the commitment to being Net Zero Carbon, they have a very limited understanding or appreciation of how complex measuring building performance can be.

First, organisations must determine their baseline which will form the comparison from which to measure progression over time. A baseline should be a period far enough back that no energy saving initiatives have begun, but recent enough that you have reliable data. I can’t stress how important the reliability of data is to a baseline. Selecting a year in the past and using whatever data you have could be disastrous.

Consumption trends alone can be a poor indicator of performance as there are a multitude of variables that can have a significant influence. Building performance metrics are used in is place and should be portfolio or building specific.

Although Net Zero Carbon is an absolute measurement (not normalised as a metric), it’s vitally important you have a normalised metric in place that accounts for external factors. This way you can tell if your efforts are having the desired impact, and not being negatively influenced by some other variable.

Targets are generally set at portfolio level (e.g 30% reduction in total carbon emissions by 2025) but we need to consider what this means at building level. It’s extremely unlikely that a 30% reduction will be evenly distributed across a portfolio of buildings. We can use a bottom up approach to justify a 30% reduction target. The important and often forgotten points to consider are how much will each building contribute to the overall effort? Which buildings show the largest potential for improvement for the lowest investment?

Prioritising energy saving initiatives in the world of Net Zero Carbon buildings has been flipped on its head. Back in the day it was viewed as a cost saving measure and projects were assessed on their expected return on investment. Nowadays, we must prioritise projects based on impact.

Whereas in the past it was a case of dealing with buildings one at a time and their independent ROI, energy saving initiatives should now be assessed in the context of the wider portfolio carbon reduction strategy. Projects can be planned and scheduled over the course of the measurement period to ensure that targets are met or to calculate how much further investment is required.

Sharing Information Effectively

You can collect a million data points and craft the most detailed and insightful data visualisations, but if you fail to share your work effectively, if you don’t get buy in, it’s all been for nothing.

Getting stakeholders on board to get initiatives off the ground has long been an issue for energy and sustainability professionals. Once we step outside of our industry into finance, marketing or operations our technical jargon makes little sense and key stakeholders can’t see the value. This is a huge problem when we’re requesting financial investment.

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Effective reporting is reliant on having overcome the three preceding obstacles we’ve just discussed and this is why it often fails to hit the mark.. If you lack reliable data, if you can’t make sense of it and if you can’t figure out a way to measure performance over time then why on earth are you expecting someone to part with their cash to fund your shady initiative?

All stakeholders from across an organisation need a single version of the truth to rally around. Disparate pieces of analysis in various spreadsheets that have been updated at different points in time won’t do the job. Consumption data, building statistics and operational information must be centralised in a platform that allows stakeholders to collaborate and find solutions together.

The hopes and dreams of a Net Zero Carbon future are solely reliant on our ability to effectively share information with the right people at the right time to enable change to take place. Behaviour change has always been a part of energy management and sustainability but it’s never been so important.

Organisations are struggling to keep up with the ever growing list of energy and sustainability reporting frameworks. All have their benefits, and perhaps slight twists for specific purposes, but the underlying premise is exactly the same.

Every organisation, regardless of which reporting framework they select, must collect data that covers their entire portfolio and accounts for all consumption, analyse and understand where they are starting from, set an ambitious but achievable target and figure out how to get there.

Problems arise when a reporting framework is viewed as the primary objective, they are simply a means to end; a layer on top that adds structure and an element of context. If your primary goal is to improve your score or star rating then you’re doing it all wrong. Use a reporting framework as a measure of progression towards the overarching objective of doing your bit to reverse climate change.

Or to look at it another way, reporting frameworks are to sustainability what weighing scales are to health and wellbeing.

Where do we go from here?

The road to Net Zero is not as straightforward as many have made it seem, but it’s far from impossible. Organisations must be open to collaborate with industry experts and technology providers to share knowledge and best practices.

To find out what we’re doing to help our customers at Fabriq, feel free to drop me an email at jon@fabriq.space or connect with me on LinkedIn.


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