Wednesday 25 November 2020 3:46 am

How smart buildings can power the green revolution

Anne Sheehan is business director of Vodafone UK

The Prime Minister’s decision to base last week’s so-called “reset” around a 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution tells us a lot about where he thinks the country needs to go over the next decade.

Indeed, it hints at what kind of country we are after Brexit: not one that looks back complacently to past successes, but one focused on innovation and change.

The government is right to note that there is no contradiction between cutting carbon emissions and enabling more investment and faster, rebalanced growth. In fact, it is the very technology which helps reduce emissions — electric vehicles, offshore wind, better connectivity — that also creates the higher skilled, higher paid jobs of the future which are the best route to regenerating the UK’s former industrial heartlands.

There are huge opportunities to create tens of thousands of new green jobs, if the right investment is there. And investment follows clear vision and clear policy direction: knowing that the UK sees its future industrial strategy as being rooted in green technology helps to give confidence to innovative green businesses from around the world that Britain is the right place to invest.

The 10-point plan includes some commitments on making homes, schools and hospitals more energy efficient. That’s vital to meeting the government’s target of achieving net zero by 2050: after all, buildings are responsible for well over a third of the UK’s carbon emissions. 

The plan, at first glance, seems less focused on technology. Indeed, when we think about reducing emissions from buildings, we tend to think about low-tech energy-saving improvements like installing loft insulation, lagging and double glazing.

These are all important, especially in our homes. But the carbon footprint of offices and other non-residential buildings is tougher to reduce, because so many of them have been designed in a way that makes traditional energy efficiency measures hard to retroactively implement. 

This is where new digital technology can help — and why it should be at the core of a new green strategy.

Internet of things (IoT) devices, coupled with artificial intelligence (AI), can tell when workspaces are being used, directing energy only to where it is needed. Smart heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems can ensure that only those spaces that are actually occupied will be actively ventilated, heated or cooled. Motion sensors can facilitate smart lighting, again seeing to it that only occupied spaces are lit and to the correct levels. 

And, over time, smart buildings can learn about occupancy patterns and suggest how workplace conditions can be optimised for both workforce comfort and energy efficiency.

Clearly, smart technology can play a big part in achieving the government’s ambitious plans to decarbonise the public sector. After all, the state owns a massive square footage of real estate — offices, hospitals, schools, prisons and other public sector buildings — around the country. Improving their energy efficiency could have a substantial impact. For example, according to a recent report, the NHS alone is responsible for 5.4 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

In fact, new analysis for Vodafone UK carried out by WPI Economics shows that smart technology could help the public sector estate reduce its carbon emissions by up to 15 per cent — enabling a fiscal saving to the taxpayer of between £264m and £380m annually.

Of course, most non-domestic buildings are not in the public sector. The stock of privately-owned non-residential buildings, from offices and shops to factories and warehouses, is enormous. And if smart technology were fitted to non-domestic buildings in the UK, it could save between four and eight million tonnes of carbon emissions. This is the equivalent of 5–10 per cent of the emissions of all buildings. And lower energy use means lower bills too, at a time when all businesses are under pressure to cut costs.

There are other benefits to smart buildings technology. Devices such as Vodafone’s Heat Detection Camera can accurately screen people for raised body temperatures with no direct bodily contact, helping keep venues Covid-secure. And as workplaces need to be reconfigured and work patterns changed to accommodate social distancing, other forms of smart technology can help to optimise and plan building use, supporting Covid-19 resilience.

The strategic case for investment in this IoT technology, with its fiscal, social, economic and environmental benefits, could not be stronger. Now it’s up to the government to play a bigger part in realising these benefits, through its own procurement and by introducing incentives to encourage take-up of IoT. 

By stimulating demand, the government can in turn help increase the number of innovative tech businesses — the very businesses tackling climate change and creating skilled jobs across the country in the process.

So bring on the green industrial revolution, powered by smart technology.

Main image credit: Getty

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