• Light touch

    Attaining sustainable development goals requires a combination of technology and strategic energy-management plans

    Light touch

    With an increased focus on climate change as the UN’s Paris Agreement comes into effect in 2020, the public sector is financing and incentivising long-term interventions towards sustainable development, as part of each country’s nationally determined contributions. Recent years have witnessed the private sector include energy-efficient products and services as part of its development trajectory, alongside increased environmentally conscious consumer behaviour.

    South Africa saw a 24.9% rise in greenhouse gas emissions between 2000 and 2010, according to the most recent GHG Inventory for South Africa, published in 2014 by the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA). In light of this, organisations and businesses across South Africa and globally are tracking their energy utilisation, implementing strategic energy-management initiatives, retrofitting their warehouses and offices, and embracing renewables and energy-efficient technologies as part of their business plan – to curb carbon emissions, ensure long-term cost cutting and win favour with consumers.

    Green funding for energy-efficient projects is also on the rise. In late 2018, the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) was awarded US$55.6 million in funding from the Green Climate Fund (GCF) to establish a ZAR2 billion Climate Finance Facility. It will support developing Southern African countries in responding to climate change by addressing private-sector market constraints in the region, and scaling up investments in South Africa, Namibia, eSwatini and Lesotho for projects, businesses and infrastructure that mitigate climate change.

    As of 1 June 2019, under Section 12L of South Africa’s Income Tax Act No 58 of 1962, the South African Revenue Service will implement an energy-efficiency tax deduction for businesses. It aims to help safeguard the country’s unstable energy supply and support its commitment to the Paris Agreement. Energy-intensive businesses and industries that have restructured their energy use will enjoy tax relief with a suggested incentive rate of ZAR0.95 per verified kWh saved.

    In South Africa, businesses rely heavily on coal-fired power, which is responsible for the country’s largest proportion of greenhouse gases, says Grahame Cruickshanks, managing executive of market engagement at the Green Building Council of South Africa (GBCSA). An energy-management plan needs to be supported by a building’s infrastructure – namely passive design measures that consider orientation, shading, glazing and reflective roof coating, among other factors – alongside energy-efficient office technologies.

    South Africa’s green building industry is maturing as environmentally conscious corporate tenants are increasing the demand for green space. A 2017 study by the GBCSA, the Association of South African Quantity Surveyors and the University of Pretoria found that construction costs of new green-rated buildings average 5% higher than conventional buildings. Draft results of a follow-up study illustrate that the green cost premium average for the next period was 3.8%.

    ‘The trend shows that the cost premium of certified green buildings is coming down over the years,’ says Cruickshanks. This challenges the notion of an excessive green cost premium. Though the initial investment may be higher, low-energy buildings have lower operating costs in the long term. ‘It makes more sense to build green in tough economic times because of the excellent return on investment,’ he says.

    In the majority of buildings, air conditioner units account for the highest consumption of energy

    Indeed, all new buildings, additions and extensions in South Africa must comply with the energy-efficiency requirements set out in the new South African National Standards for environmental sustainability and energy usage in buildings. In addition to inculcating an energy-efficient culture within employees, ‘energy-monitoring systems are integral to achieving optimal building performance by providing valuable data, which allows for the ongoing performance improvement of buildings by the occupants’, says Cruickshanks.

    In future, all buildings will be automatically fitted with an internet of things (IoT)-enabled building management system (BMS) – a computer-based monitoring system that controls energy and water usage from a central point. Various types of IoT devices track motion, air pressure, light, temperature and water flow, and then – with the internet backbone – ‘enable the BMS to autonomously sense, communicate, analyse, and act or react to people or other machines in a non-intrusive manner’, according to a Deloitte report of innovations in commercial real estate.

    An IoT-enabled BMS may be pre-programmed to automate building control systems or it may be sensor-activated so that lights, HVACs and appliances automatically turn off when employees leave a room, or switch on in the mornings ahead of their arrival. This kind of operational efficiency and building performance lowers operating costs, facilitates predictive maintenance and increases security.

    Furthermore, the Deloitte Tech Trends 2019 report details how companies are using exponential technologies – such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), AI, 360-degree photos and sensor technologies – to enhance operational efficiency and boost productivity.

    ‘AI allowed Google Cloud to improve the energy efficiency in its data [centres] by using machine learning to set cooling system algorithms and reinforcement learning – where the system tries different things to test an outcome and then retains itself based on findings – the system learned, on its own, what the optimal settings were. The cooling energy needed was reduced by 40%, resulting in a 15% reduction on overall data-centre energy usage and producing significant cost savings for the organisation.’ The report also illustrates how ‘devices will be able to learn from their interactions with us, which over time will yield much more efficient decision-making and communication between human and device’.

    This is a growing trend as companies are expected to spend US$1.7 trillion worldwide on digital transformation and digitalising their business operations by end-2019 – a 42% increase from 2017, according to the International Data Corporation (IDC) report on the outlook for worldwide digital transformation.

    HVAC is the largest (up to 60%) energy consumer in most buildings and represents an opportunity for energy-use reduction. ‘Measures to reduce the energy consumption of HVAC range from low-cost measures, such as tuning the system, installing sensors and timers that [often have] pay-back periods of less than a year, to major changes or the replacement of the HVAC system, which have multi-year pay-back periods,’ according to the Sustainable Energy Solutions for South African Local Government report published by Sustainable Energy Africa in 2017.

    Energy Star is a US government-backed symbol for energy efficiency that makes it easy for consumers and businesses to purchase certified products that save money and protect the environment by managing their energy use effectively. Since 1992, Energy Star-associated greenhouse gas reductions have amounted to 3.1 billion tons.

    In April 2018, Hewlett Packard (HP) received the 2018 Energy Star partner of the year award for product brand owner, for its environmental leadership in IT equipment. By 2017, HP had close to 800 high-efficiency products that were Energy Star-certified – more than any other similar manufacturer – and also made use of HP Energy Star software that promotes superior energy efficiency. The HP Elite Slice, a mini modular PC, for example, is 50% more energy efficient and 70% lighter than other similar product offerings.

    ‘Since 2010, the energy consumption of our personal systems products dropped by 43%, on average, despite the general increase in software power demands during that period. This included average reductions of 49% in desktops, 32% in notebooks and 36% in workstations. During that time frame, we have reduced energy consumption of our HP LaserJet portfolio by 56%, on average, and the energy consumption of our HP Inkjet portfolio by 20%, on average,’ according to the HP 2017 Sustainable Impact Report.

    By 2016, the world had generated 44.7 million tons of e-waste, 20% of which was recycled through appropriate channels, according to the Global E-waste Monitor 2017 published by the UN University. In line with most manufacturers’ electronic waste initiatives, HP’s repair, reuse and recycling programmes support responsible collection and processing to recover and reuse as much material as possible to reduce negative impacts on environments and communities.

    Greenpeace’s Rethink-IT campaign challenges the IT sector to take responsibility for its rapidly growing footprint on the Earth. The 2017 Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics report analyses how the world’s 17 leading consumer electronics companies are addressing their environmental impacts and what more can be done in future. One of the three critical impact areas includes the reduction of greenhouse gases through efficiency and renewable energy. According to the report’s company report card, Apple scored highest in the energy category, followed by HP and Fairphone, which tied in second place. The lowest-scoring companies were Oppo, Vivo and Mi (Xiaomi).

    The report also found that companies are shortening the useful life of otherwise functional devices by making them difficult to service or upgrade. Samsung, Apple and Microsoft are moving backwards on sustainable product design, while HP, Dell and Fairphone produce more and more products that are repairable and upgradable, which in turn decelerates their replacement cycle.

    A combination of green-building technologies, strategic energy-management plans, retrofitted working spaces and energy-efficient technologies are needed to enable sustainable development and achieve the aims of the Paris Agreement; and it starts with one business at a time.

    By Iga Motylska
    Images: Gallo/Getty Images