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Small steps can make a quick start to achieving net zero in the built environment

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With national headlines celebrating a dramatic reduction in fossil fuel usage and a significant increase in renewables, eliminating carbon emissions by 2050 seems closer than ever. However, achieving this goal on a commercial level is far from simple and will require pragmatism.

In June 2019, the UK government passed into law a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to ‘net zero’ by 2050, following recommendations from the independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC). This legislation’s passing makes it more urgent than ever that businesses take steps to decarbonise, and represents a daunting change for the construction industry – it’s now not a question of when action will be taken, but of how and what.

Though the net zero 2050 deadline may look unfeasible and intimidating, its ambitions are firmly grounded in reality, with the CCC describing it as “necessary, feasible, and cost-effective”. But in order to achieve these lofty aims, it’s vital that businesses take immediate pragmatic actions.

Reassuringly, this is an issue that business at large is taking seriously, and on which it wants to enact change.

Research by Aggreko, gleaned from interviewing 200 UK energy professionals across a broad array of industries, confirms that improving sustainability is a key, ongoing concern. Yet though a resounding 96 per cent of respondents said their company’s environmental impact is a “medium- to high-priority”, there remains a disconnect with translating concern into concrete action. This can be showcased in the fact 85 per cent of those surveyed still identify diesel as the fuel of choice for powering their on-site equipment.

These findings show that while it is clear that businesses are looking for ways to reduce emissions and would prioritise greener options when available, there are still hurdles to overcome regarding uptake. However, there are a number of emission-lowering technologies and processes to can be implemented to accelerate the route to net zero.

For example, specifiers can opt for generators that run on greener drop-in fuels, such as hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO). In contrast to regular biodiesel produced via esterification, HVO is made using hydrogenation – that is, treatment with hydrogen. Unlike esterification, hydrogenation involves the removal of all oxygen from the HVO, so it can be stored for far longer without the risk of contamination. Crucially, depending on sourcing, HVO also produces markedly less carbon emissions than traditional fossil fuels.

Combined heat and power (CHP) technology offers another viable way to take steps toward net zero and enhance overall operational sustainability. Otherwise known as cogeneration, CHP involves capturing and redeploying the waste heat produced in conventional power plants to make hot water or steam for on-site processing applications. As heat and power is all produced from a single source, the technology can reduce carbon emissions by as much as 30 per cent, while reaching efficiency rates of 80 per cent or higher, and generating typical savings of 20 per cent on energy bills.

While battery technology is no new concept, it’s still prohibitively costly for many companies to purchase on an industrial scale. However, despite common perceptions, energy-storage technology is more accessible now than it was three years ago due to progress in the rental space. Furthermore, storage is often praised for its grid support capacity, yet its on-site role cannot be overlooked.

The technical difficulties associated with early-stage decentralised energy schemes, for example, are better managed when storage is incorporated into the energy mix. Low loads, transient loads, and voltage and frequency fluctuations can all be mitigated, providing supply is sufficient.

While the sustainability benefits of HVO and CHP are clear, there may still be financial obstacles that prevent the uptake of these solutions. Indeed, in the Covid-affected business climate, many organisations may simply not have the capital to finance a permanent installation. However, with June surveys from Energy Live News stating that an overwhelming majority of businesses believe this is the perfect time to capitalise on net-zero plans, more innovative funding approaches may be needed.

Rented solutions can be treated as an opex cost that bypasses capex restrictions, allowing a business to build the funding required to purchase a permanent installation in the future. Suppliers are usually responsible for the equipment’s ongoing maintenance throughout the rental period, ensuring optimal performance. This support means the company hiring the solution can enjoy peace of mind about the rented system’s continued reliability, as any potential issues can be quickly resolved at no added cost.

In conclusion, though the challenge of reducing emissions in line with net-zero legislation may seem so challenging as to be off-putting, there are smaller steps companies can take to incrementally reach this long-term goal. Combined with the financial flexibility and support provided by ‘bridging gap’ hire solutions, organisations can take pragmatic action now and reap both cost savings and sustainability benefits.

Chris Rason is managing director for Northern Europe at Aggreko UK.

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