UPDATED 1 Sept: The EI library in London is temporarily closed to the public, as a precautionary measure in light of the ongoing COVID-19 situation. The Knowledge Service will still be answering email queries via email , or via live chats during working hours (09:15-17:00 GMT). Our e-library is always open for members here: eLibrary , for full-text access to over 200 e-books and millions of articles. Thank you for your patience.
New Energy World magazine logo
New Energy World magazine logo
ISSN 2753-7757 (Online)
Head and shoulders photo of Mervyn Pilley, Executive Director, Energy Services and Technology Association Photo: ESTA
Mervyn Pilley, Executive Director, Energy Services and Technology Association (ESTA)

Photo: ESTA

Energy efficiency is often overlooked in favour of grand and expensive supply side plans for achieving net zero emissions. But the cleanest energy is the energy we don’t use, and the public sector needs to recognise this by prioritising the basics, argues Mervyn Pilley, Executive Director at the UK Energy Services and Technology Association (ESTA).

I have just completed four years at ESTA and it has certainly been a roller coaster ride. Brexit, a pandemic and then a war have made life interesting. The situation in Ukraine and the subsequent energy crisis should have made running an energy efficiency trade association one of the easiest jobs on the planet; but it hasn’t quite worked out like that.


One of the biggest underlying frustrations I have is the seeming inability of the government to understand that energy efficiency really is a supply, and consequently, a security issue. The ‘first fuel’ argument that the International Energy Agency uses so eloquently really does reiterate the fact that the energy you don’t use is as important as where you get the energy you do use from.


And why is this so important?


Everyone relating to the transition to net zero (back to those two words in a minute) has led to a focus on some very ‘big ticket’, hugely expensive, and very long-term supply solutions. I have always tried to keep an open mind on finding the right solution to solve needs. But, solutions such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) remain very much a commercially untested solution; and whilst nuclear is clearly very much tried and tested, there are still many questions over the funding for building new nuclear power stations, let alone the legacy issues of getting rid of waste.


A not-so-new solution 
ESTA was 40 years old in 2022 and, as one of my historian members reminded me, energy management goes back to the 1970s, so there is nothing new in energy efficiency. As a trade association, our members look to provide all forms of solution for hard-pressed businesses, including the financing of installations. In reality, many of the solutions, especially metering and building energy management systems, are in place and ready to be installed.


I have been amazed listening to stories from many people who have told me about metering that was installed many years ago and then appeared to have been forgotten about. Clearly, having data on usage is critical; but equally important is having someone on hand who can understand what the data is telling the user and recommend what to do next to reduce usage.


In collaboration with the Energy Institute, we have been driving forward our behaviour change-based programme – The Energy Conscious Organisation – to try and ensure that matching humans and technology will achieve the best results. I am aware that the view is that artificial intelligence (AI) can learn how to take over much of the data interpretation process, but I still believe that humans are going to be needed for many years ahead.


Energy efficient net zero
I said I would get back to net zero. One thing that COP26 reinforced to me was that everyone was being encouraged to focus on these two words, rather than what we believe is critical as the starting point for every net zero journey: energy efficiency.


Making sure the message about the critical importance of energy efficiency got out was an increasingly difficult task. What made the job even more frustrating was that in reality everyone was being encouraged to tick the race to net zero box without there being any real support mechanisms in place to achieve their targets.


Whilst the solutions do exist and indeed have existed for a long time, the fact remains that the private sector can’t do everything on its own.  


I am a great believer in the need for both carrots and sticks. Businesses need incentivisation, ideally through the taxation system, to invest in solutions. Regulations are also needed to ensure that new buildings are built to the right standards, but these need to be enforced.


The commercial property stock in the UK is very complex and retrofitting solutions is critical. For that reason, the lack of a national retrofit plan, together with a strategy for funding that plan, as well as training up the very large number of installers that will be needed, is a major stumbling block for businesses and other non-domestic users to reduce the energy usage of their buildings.


It is important to recognise just how much installer capacity comes from the SME (small and medium sized enterprises) sector and the failure of the Green Deal and Green Homes grant schemes has discouraged many businesses from taking on and training up the much-needed installers. This also has a dampening effect on the need to substantially boost the number of green jobs in the UK. There are many people that need to transition from the fossil fuel sector into new roles for those two words, net zero, to truly materialise.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly those of the author only and are not necessarily given or endorsed by or on behalf of the Energy Institute.