For the UK to meet its 2050 carbon net zero target, this can’t simply be about far-off carbon targets. For the size and scale of operations in our sights, we need to win hearts by attracting heads and that means putting in place controllable, achievable, and crucially, scalable solutions today. As a cyclist, this context got me thinking about how Team GB achieved magnificent things step by step and eventually changed their position to dominate world cycling. So in this time of change, can marginal gains play a pivotal role to get us to Net Zero?
Turn and face the change
Let’s face it, change can be exhausting. During my time at Siemens, I’ve witnessed many change initiatives. We sometimes forget that for a lot of people, change can be just as nerve-racking as going to the dentist. We generally don’t like to break away from the status quo as it’s safe, predictable, and ‘normal’.
It’d be safe to say that 2020 has exposed us to the amount of change normally experienced across a lifetime. But the worry is that the pandemic has not created a lasting change in a number of areas. There’s still a feeling that when a vaccine arrives, many people who are craving the status quo will revert back to pre-Covid ways in areas that have genuinely improved. For others, the point of acceptance has been reached and an understanding achieved that things cannot, or should not, go back to ‘normal’. Anyone missing their commute?
The worry was that in our ‘new normal’, post-Covid world, the impetus would be on how quickly we could ‘fire up’ the economy again, building back faster, but dirtier. Rising CO2 and NOx figures have been noted in recent months as industry creeps back into life as part of what we could call ‘the dirty restart’.
Building back better
At Siemens, we’re committed to building back better and not simply restarting the great carbon machine as before. It’s about using Covid-19 as a springboard to keep working together across sectors, to apply the collective thinking we deployed at the height of the virus. This was especially evident when multiple industries came together to react to the country’s needs for ventilators, or vaccines.
It’s been really encouraging to witness the movement within the UK during the pandemic towards a net zero energy system with the phrase ‘our roadmap to net zero’ becoming almost as common as ‘you’re on mute’. Various roadmaps to net zero can mean different things to different people and there are probably different versions of what a true roadmap to net zero looks like. Clearly part of this is decarbonising our energy systems, which is no simple task, and extremely complex.
Take industrial users of Combined Heat and Power (CHP) for example. Not too many years ago, CHP would save industrial users significant energy costs and the carbon savings were clear. The electricity grid is decarbonising relatively quickly, and now natural gas CHP can just about keep its head above water in terms of carbon benefits, provided there is really good use of heat. Reverting to steam boilers and grid electricity does not economically make sense for industrial customers and neither does electrification of steam. Hydrogen and, as we’ve been researching at Siemens, even ammonia can replace the natural gas as the fuel source, but again there are challenges with logistics, storage and economics for it to have a strong business case.
The gas grid will, at some point, decarbonise. But in the meantime, throw in the increasingly complex and changing energy system and policy changes, then you begin to see how businesses and organisations face a real challenge when thinking about decarbonising their operations. What might work for one company is completely unviable for another. This is why understanding how various bits of the jigsaw fit together underpins success in transitioning to a zero-carbon energy system.
Thinking big but starting small
For my team (Energy Solutions), we believe that for the UK to meet its 2050 carbon net zero target, this can’t simply be about far-off carbon targets. For the size and scale of operations in our sights, we need to win hearts by attracting heads and that means putting in place controllable, achievable, and crucially, scalable solutions today.
The only way we’ll run this target down is by thinking big but starting small – or to put it another way, think global but act local. For me that means incremental changes. Being a person who loves cycling, I like to think of the story of Sir David Brailsford and his fantastic work with the British Cycling Team. When he was appointed in 2003 the team was in a poor state. Performance was underwhelming and at one point there was even a bike manufacturer who was hesitant to sell their products to the team GB. Now, it seems absolutely impossible to believe, because of what they’ve achieved in the past 17 years.
Brailsford began to make a series of small adjustments to the team’s regime – or as he put it, doing 100 things 1% better. Changes to seats, clothing, training, nutrition. Until he started, British cycling had only one gold medal in its 76-year history. But with his introduction of improvements, by the year 2008 the squad won seven out of ten gold medals in track cycling at the Beijing Olympics and then went on to dominate world cycling.
In a culture of marginal gains, everyone starts to look for improvements. I believe we can take this approach with our decarbonisation ambitions. We think big but we start small. Everything from lighting, heating, transport, and electricity can and should be improved, finding small percentage improvements across the decades. As Brailsford says, ‘forget about perfection; focus on progression, and compound the improvement.’
That’s how my team at Siemens works with customers – we take ownership of their decarbonisation targets and work in partnership to reduce emissions over time, step by step. Understanding the whole picture of an organisation’s emissions is the first step and then, through a combination of digital simulation tools and physical audits, we create a digital twin of a customer’s new low-carbon decentralised energy system. This is all about turning data into results.
And that’s why when I think of innovation, I don’t just think about what we do but also how we do it. For example, we have 164 university campuses in the UK. A lot of that real estate is existing infrastructure where there’s a lot of untapped opportunity. Some can be brilliantly described as including a ‘museum of buildings’. And these campuses can quite often replicate the ecosystem of a small city, both with difficult historical and technical challenges but paired with human behavioural acceptance of change as well.
For these types of challenges, we work in partnership with universities to develop an energy roadmap to show a step by step approach to get to net zero. It takes thinking differently. Not going into a campus with a clear motive to sell one particular technology or solution or having the answer before you’ve understood the question. It’s about taking time to understand the university, their infrastructure and the student experience they’re aiming for. We start the process by building a digital twin or the campus into our purpose-built simulation software platform. By doing that we can start to work as a partnership through our three-step process;
- Reducing energy demand through finding efficiency
- Assessing what can feasibly be produced on site by local assets like solar PV, GSHP
- Transforming that university into a living lab, learning from the solutions and continuously making intelligence decisions through customer-built algorithms.
Do more, save more, contribute less
People can sometimes be forgiven for waiting for large-scale, disruptive change programmes, shifting entire agendas along overnight and touting capital expenditure figures in the hundreds of billions. When it comes to local energy, it won’t be like that. We know that between 1990 and 2014, small incremental changes over time in improved energy efficiency helped the UK avoid building the equivalent of 14 new power stations. This point shows that it’s not about a ‘silver bullet’ moment where you suddenly change tack and deliver on your promises. It’s about a long, sustained, and mutual relationship where the of sum gains scaled across the entire country can be massive.
In 1990 the technology available was incomparable with today. But by appointing someone like Siemens as an energy and performance service partner, it means we can keep iterating and using the latest ideas and technology to find marginal gains year on year. Innovation can not only be radical, but also incremental. This work is perpetual, and we won’t rest until we’ve achieved the right target for our customers and our planet.
The companies that diversify and decarbonise now will be the ones that not only improve their bottom lines in terms of profit but will also attract the brightest and best to their ranks to continue solving climate challenges for years to come.