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Innovation only incremental with green sector "becalmed" by maturity

With a number of technologies deemed to have peaked, the environmental sector is lacking the shock of the new, according to exhibitors at this year's UK Sustainability Live expo, although consumer concern continues to drive sector.

Photo: Sustained debate: has the eco-energy industry run out of steam?
Sustained debate: has the eco-energy industry run out of steam?

Despite an apparent decline in innovation, interest and budgets from commercial customers were clearly on the rise at this year's Sustainability Live Exhibition. The combination of growing confidence in the economic outlook, maturing technology and the triple whammy of legislation, energy prices and customer 'greenwash' [the practice of hyping a product's environmentally-friendly credentials] expectations saw many companies looking to conspicuously invest in energy saving activities.

Despite this, some companies still see national governments as yet to play a suitably pro-active role in the sector. Clare Burns, Marketing Manager for ENER-G Combined Power, a UK-based combined heat and power generation plant maker, said: "Our markets are hugely vulnerable to legislation and gas and electricity prices. We need gas to be three times cheaper than electricity for there to be significant financial savings. At the moment, that applies quite widely across Europe.

"There also needs to be support within the country for the technology. This could see it exempt from taxation or, if the funding is there, driven by other incentives.

"Although there's money around, people are nervous when it comes to investing. If there's government support, however, support that says: 'This is a good technology and we believe in it,' then there's much greater willingness to spend.

"We are quite vulnerable though. A government could simply increase the tax on gas and reduce the rate for electricity and suddenly gas becomes expensive, while electricity seems cheap. That takes the market away from us."

Government initiatives are clearly the most powerful drivers in the sustainable sector and have fostered a number of niche industries. 'Smart' metering for energy usage is one particularly pertinent example. One German company, Tadiran Batteries, for instance, specialises in the provision of high-performance long-life batteries, particularly suited to use in gas and water meters.

Acknowledging the role played by legislation, Gary Allan, the company's Sales Manager, says: "The government is driving this sector, not the utility companies themselves. They are being forced to implement smart metering in line with European directives.

"In theory, smart meters should increase consumer awareness of their level of usage. There are also clear advantages for the utility company. If the user doesn't pay their bill, for instance, they can be switched off remotely."

Aside from government directives, many detected something of a grassroots movement by shareholders that was creating a new green sensibility among many businesses. Steve Gardner, a director of UK-based Ecolighting, an environmentally-responsible illumination company, said: "With the bigger PLCs, we are finding they are happy to spend extra money because shareholders demand that certain KPIs are hit, particularly with regards to investing in new technology. While SMEs tend to go for the cheapest alternative, PLCs are now tending to deliberate a little more. They are far more concerned with finding better performing technology."

A third spur to the sector is coming from customers themselves. Mark Waterhouse, the Sales Director for Airius Europe, a south of England-based heat redistribution system company, noted a distinct change in this regard. He said: "We stopped doing shows a few years ago because – if we were lucky – we were only getting five leads a day. People didn't really seem to be interested; they were just paying lip service to sustainability.

"Now, however, the mindset is completely different. People are much more aware and want to do something about it – or have to do something about. Legislation is making people do things but people are also being driven to do it by their client base. There's a definite: 'We're not going to buy from you if you're not using sustainables' factor coming into play here."

While spending power – for a variety of reasons – may be on the increase, genuine innovation seems to be on the decrease. For many exhibitors, as the industry is maturing, far greater effort is required to gain even small improvements in performance.

Stuart Denton-Brown, Energy Services Manager for the UK's Power Efficiency, specialist energy usage consultancy, said: "A lot of these technologies are now maturing – solar PV, LED lighting… Whereas, at one time, there was a lot of innovation on show, these technologies have now arrived."

A relative dearth of novelty was also reported by Neil Underwood, Sales Director for UK-based iVolt. He said: "There's little new for the energy managers to see. Voltage optimisation is now very well-established.

"iVolt is intelligent voltage optimisation. It is a means to reduce the kWh consumption in a commercial building through a voltage reduction. We stabilise the voltage, so the equipment runs more effectively. As there's no dissipation of heat, this results in real energy saving, in terms of both kWh and carbon footprint reduction.

"It offers energy and financial savings on a major scale. I believe, we're saving some of our clients millions of pounds a year. The important thing is being able to validate those savings. Many clients, especially when it comes to voltage optimisation, have been sold products that are based on non-engineering principles. In reality, many of them amount to nothing more than sales and marketing spin."

Despite the apparent consolidation in the sector, some believe there are still some new technologies waiting in the wings, although – in some cases – a number of technical issues remain to be resolved. With this very much in mind, Ecolighting's Gardner says: "While LEDs is where the lighting market will end up, plasma lighting has also come to the fore over the last couple of years. It's still relatively unknown and relatively expensive, however, and there are still some technical issues.

"LED, though, is where people are focussing their attention, if not where they are necessarily spending money. At the end of the day, each light source has different properties and they work differently in different temperature ranges. LED won't suit everything."

While, plasma lighting aside, game-changing technologies may be thin on the ground, there's still room for incremental advances. Airius' range of 'de-stratification' fans, for instance, won an award for environmental innovation at the show.

Explaining why they were singled out, Waterhouse says: "When you heat a space, you're generally trying to heat the floor area – where the people are. Heat rises, however, and gets stuck in the ceiling, so you have to keep pumping in the heat until the temperature reaches the right point at the floor level. All that heat circulating around the ceiling is wasted. You then get a temperature difference between the floor and the ceiling. This is what we term stratification.

Photo: Airius’ award-winning new ‘de-stratification’ fan.
Airius' award-winning new 'de-stratification' fan.
Photo: Panoramic Power’s wireless monitoring device.
Panoramic Power's wireless monitoring device.

"The process of breaking down that temperature difference is known as de-stratification. This has the goal of creating a zero degree difference between the floor and the ceiling. That's how our clients are achieving between 20% and 50% savings on their heating bills.

"A traditional fan creates its own friction, its own turbulence. This prevents the air getting down to the ground. The big difference with us is that we're creating a column of air. When that column hits the ground, it spreads out, reaching every nook and cranny of the building. This is how we are achieving a zero degree of difference from the floor to the ceiling."

Perhaps as a sign of the increased call for evaluating the mature technology in the sector, energy-monitoring companies were particularly well-represented this year. Among the most innovative was Panoramic Power, an Israeli company.

Explaining his company's USP, Itai Eboim, Panoramic's Director of Professional Services, said: "We make self-powered, wireless monitoring devices that you can attach to the circuit breaker. It's really easy, you just open and snap it on the wire. It then starts collecting the energy data from that individual circuit. Everything is then communicated wirelessly to our nearby communication hub, which, in turn, uploads everything to a cloud solution.

"Every customer can then see – at the device level – their exact energy consumption. They can determine all the different inefficiencies and identify, for instance, all the devices that are on when they're supposed to be off.

Photo: Sustainability Live 2014: the smarter power expo.
Sustainability Live 2014: the smarter power expo.

"The system proactively sends SMS or emails. It is device-specific. For an electrical motor or an air conditioning system, for instance, based on its typical electrical footprint, you can see if the device is working the way it should be."

Sustainability Live was held at the NEC, Birmingham, UK, 1-3 April 2014.

James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, Birmingham

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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