Special report: Energy technology for the office

Energy efficiency is going to be the buzzword for government and business in their fight against climate change over the next decade. The International Energy Agency has projected that energy-efficient policies and technologies will contribute 78 per cent of avoided CO2 emissions by 2030, compared with only 12 percent from renewable energies and 10 per cent from nuclear.

After all, green technologies that cut energy bills, in addition to carbon emissions, simply make business sense for office-based organisations.

Measuring: Energy meters

Advanced metering technology identifies energy savings by providing companies’ with detailed information about the way they use energy.

The technology is already well established in larger companies but not in small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), says Carbon Trust’s director of innovations, Mark Williamson.

Stonemartin, an office provider managing 388,000 sq ft of office space, installed a real-time online metering system from CarbonAqua last year in one of its London offices. The technology – produced by German manufacturer deZem – shows where energy is being used minute by minute in everything from the central air conditioning plant down to individual power sockets.

Following installation, CarbonAqua identified between 25 per cent and 30 per cent of potential energy savings by identifying the heaviest consumers of electricity, heating and air conditioning in a building, and optimising existing equipment and controls to bring usage down.

Stonemartin estimates the installation of deZem will have paid for itself within a few months and expects to reduce its current annual energy cost of around £200K by 30 per cent.

Cool solutions

Tim Worboys, sales and marketing director at Stonemartin, says the system will also justify investment in other energy-saving technologies. One option is to install a ‘free-cooling’ system, using outside ambient temperature to save energy in chilled water and air conditioning systems. This will reduce electricity consumption in the building by around 8 per cent, with installation costs being recovered within 24 months.

Stonemartin also plans to display information on screens with information about energy being consumed now, with energy and CO2 figures before and after energy saving measures in the lobby to raise energy awareness among staff using the building.

Data centres with a difference

Huge savings can also be made by implementing devices in the data centre (the facilities used to house computer systems and servers), a notoriously large consumer of energy in offices.

This year Citigroup is due to open two data centres this year, in Frankfurt and Texas, designed to achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certification From the US Green Building Council.

The centres bring together a host of technology for improving efficiency of fans, pumps, motors, drivers, disks and other components that make up a data centre. Software can also be used to power down parts of the server not being used, or to replace energy-inefficient hardware. Citigroup says much of this is readily available technology.

The server in Frankfurt is expected to save up to 25 per cent on electricity consumption compared with conventional data centres. This equates to 16,000 megawatt hours every year, and 11,000 tonnes less carbon dioxide.

PCs: Save in the dark

There are savings to be had beyond the fire-breathing data centre, from PCs.

Software company 1E’s NightWatchman is an example of power management software that automatically shuts down networked PCs at evenings and weekends.

Research by the National Energy Foundation and 1E showed that in large office-based businesses with 20,000 staff, roughly 2,500 PCs are unnecessarily left running overnight.

1E believes that the NightWatchman could save those businesses £175,000 in electricity a year (energy in the UK costs between about 5p and 7p per kwh) as well as 1,000 tonnes of CO2.

The average cost of installing NightWatchman is around £9 per PC.

Thin terminals

Another easy win for offices is to get PCs to run more efficiently. Reed Managed Services, which delivers IT services to the Reed Group, replaced all its computers with thin client computing from Wyse Technology across the group’s 305 offices in 2006.

Thin terminals are essentially ‘simple’ computers that run from a central server rather than the processor, disk drives or memory on the desktop of a conventional PC. This means fewer processing and memory requirements, which means fewer fans and moving parts – and less energy.

In most situations, thin computers run applications faster than an average PC because they are linked to powerful servers in the data centre. The compromise is that they do not offer CD-ROM or DVD drives or internal memory.

A thin terminal uses as little as 6.6 watts, compared with 70 to 150 watts on an average PC. Within one year, Reed had cut electricity bills by 26 per cent.

Thin computers also enable organisations to reduce capital, support and maintenance, and operating costs. As a result of the longer lifecycle (seven to nine years compared with a PC’s three years), lower staff costs, reduced need for third party repair services and lower electricity consumption, US insurance firm Amerisure saved £447,000 ($900,000) in a year by installing Wyse thin computers across its nine US branch offices and HQ.

A study of 11 Wyse customers by market intelligence firm IDC calculated that the payback for thin computing investment was just under 11 months on average.

Micro CHP, macro impact

Technology currently creating interest in the micro-generation arena is for micro combined heat and power (CHP) units. These replace the gas central heating boiler not only to provide heat and hot water but also electricity.

The additional cost of purchase and installation for a commercial-scale micro-CHP unit as the lead boiler is approximately £15,000. The unit replaces the lead boiler. This cost includes installation, which in most instances is carried out by the manufacturer.

Williamson envisages greater application in care homes, hotels, leisure centres or blocks of houses with shared heating systems where there’s a year-round demand for heating or water. In such situations, he says, users can achieve energy savings of between 15 per cent and 20 per cent a year.

Payback time

Given the benefits, what is holding back wider adoption?

One barrier is lack of awareness, says Williamson. But, depending on the technology, another is still the initial cost.

Low-cost and quick-win solutions such as NightWatchman are an easier sell for suppliers (1E aims for a six-month payback on all its products), but when the payback period extends to longer than three years, such as with the micro CHP, companies need extra incentives.

To increase take-up of the online metering system, CarbonAqua offers a finance deal allowing companies to pay in instalments whilst they rake in the savings.

More carrots

Various UK-based grants and incentives include Enhanced Capital Allowances that allow businesses to claim 100% first-year capital allowances on energy saving technologies. Carbon Trust also offers interest-free loans for energy-efficient equipment.

Sometimes it’s a personnel problem. Adoption in the IT sector would pick up, says Dave Pritchard, senior technology and sales strategist at Futitsu Siemens Computers –a European IT manufacturer – if IT and data centre managers were given sight of their companies’ energy bills.

Power disconnect

“Most of the data centre managers I know are not responsible for the power budget… this is crazy,” he says. “People go home and put on their energy saving light bulbs but they come into a data centre and leave everything on.”

Pritchard says his company has had more success selling the TX120 (its recently launched server that can make 33 per cent energy and carbon savings compared with conventional servers) to mid-size companies that have the ability to change faster.

But with green credentials to boast, suppliers are now finding it easier to bypass the IT department for the initial sell. “Because we are able to talk about emissions as well as reductions in energy and cost, we can take our message to different parts of the organisation,” says Simon Francis, vice president of energy solutions at software company 1E.

Solar dawn

Advanced photovoltaic (PV) technology, including organic, inorganic and hybrid thin film materials and applications, has the potential to deliver energy at a much lower cost than conventional wafer-based silicon technology and is an attractive renewable source for offices. Silicon is an expensive material to buy and work with, organic PV less so. But at the moment due to lack of development the organic technology is still expensive and therefore limited to niche applications or demonstrations.

Carbon Trust and the University of Cambridge have initiated a £5 million R&D programme to develop organic PV, as opposed to silicon, as it is cheaper and can be printed on flexible surfaces.

The aim of the programme is to ensure that within ten years the energy from organic PV systems will be as cheap as the power currently delivered to UK homes.

Sheets of PV film, made from a polymer base, will sit on surfaces such as windows or building roofs. Other applications could also be chargers for mobile phones or laptop computers.

On the right track

Germany has been embracing technology such as CarbonAqua’s for years – it is already being widely use by companies such as Deutsche Telekom, Siemens and many government organisations. Adoption in the UK has been slower. But prices are coming down and awareness of the benefits is increasing. As Groves from CarbonAqua says: “In the UK it is going to take a bit of time to establish these technologies.”

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