Oxford research brings to light businesses’ energy use

13 August 2014

According to Oxford University researchers, many retailers, including those with smart meters, are not actively ‘managing’ how much energy they use and are paying larger energy bills than they need to. Under a new project called WICKED (Working with Infrastructure, Creation of Knowledge, and Energy strategy Development) funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Oxford research team led by Professor Peter Grindrod from the Mathematical Institute is seeking to work with retailers to help them find more efficient ways of managing their energy consumption.

Professor Grindrod said: ‘We are looking for participants of all sizes, from small corner shops to big multinational retailers. We want to work with retailers, energy suppliers, business support groups, and energy advice companies to map the barriers to and opportunities for better energy management within the retail sector as a whole.’

The researchers define ‘data-rich’ organisations as those that have automatic metre reading at 30-minute intervals, typically (but not exclusively) larger organisations with energy managers. They say these organisations have problems too: often they are swamped by the amounts of information they have to analyse. In small and medium companies, a recent Carbon Trust study found that there are approximately 2.7 million manually-read meters which are checked only quarterly or annually. This latter group is defined as ‘data-poor’ by Dr Kathryn Janda, based in Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute. She has co-authored a research paper (recently published in the Journal of Property Investment and Finance) that identifies some of the reasons for the gap between ‘data-rich’ and ‘data-poor’ organisations in the UK. She looked at a variety of non-domestic buildings, including arts venues, schools, a leisure centre, theatres and churches (with help from Pilio Ltd, an Oxford University spin-out concerned with energy analytics and innovative solutions to energy management problems).

Dr Janda highlights the Ambassador Theatre Group – with venues across the UK including London’s West End – which cut its energy consumption by 15% in two years after employing a dedicated energy manager. The theatre group now has half-hourly electrical meters and regular reporting on energy use across all its sites. By contrast, the Church of England is highlighted as an illustration of the ‘data-poor’: with obvious barriers to energy efficiency given it is heavily reliant on volunteers rather than paid staff and has the task of heating and lighting historic buildings. The Church of England has committed to a carbon reduction target of 80% by 2050, but this goal may be difficult to achieve without better energy information and management practices, says the study.

The Journal of Property Investment and Finance produced a special issue on improving energy performance in commercial property, co-edited by Susan Bright, Professor of Land Law at Oxford University. She concludes that over the past 40 years, the poor uptake of retrofit technologies and management practices has led to efficiency and performance ‘gaps’ between how buildings perform in practice and in theory.

Professor Bright said: ‘Addressing the energy challenge in commercial property means we must understand not only the technical opportunities but also the social complexities. This includes the way in which property is owned and let. Half of the total UK stock of ‘core’ commercial buildings is leased, and many properties are mixed-use, with both shared and private spaces.  There needs to be a change in the way leases are drawn up, putting more responsibility on the owners to facilitate energy upgrades and environmental data sharing. Most leases currently do not include this sort of requirement for more energy-efficient practices.’

The WICKED research team will combine expertise in energy use, maths, computing, engineering, physics, law, and organisational behaviour for the EPSRC- funded research programme. It will use empirical research and big data analytics to uncover how much information is needed and by whom.

Dr Janda said: ‘Although there are plans to replace and upgrade 53 million electricity and gas meters by 2020, until then there will be a gap between the ‘data rich’ who are using smart meters and the ‘data poor’ who are using manually read meters less regularly. Our project aims to help both groups through innovative metering technologies and big data analytics. Smart meters measure energy, however, WICKED’s smart-er meters also measure energy services. So for the first time retailers will be able to see the breakdown of energy usage, divided up into the things we actually care about, like light, heat, and building humidity.

‘By using big data analytics, we will turn numbers into knowledge and provide retailers of all sizes with actionable insights to how they could use energy more wisely.  This research is particularly timely as the Government’s Energy Saving Opportunity Scheme is due to come into effect in 2015. The project promises real business potential in helping to cut energy bills and reduce energy consumption in the long term.’

For more information or interviews, contact the University of Oxford News and Information Office on +44 (0)1865 280534 or email: [email protected]

Notes to Editors:

 The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK’s main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone’s health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK. www.epsrc.ac.uk/

For more information about WICKED, go to http://www.energy.ox.ac.uk/wicked/

For companies wanting to get involved, email: [email protected]

WICKED is one of six new research projects recently announced by the EPSRC that aim to gain a fuller understanding of how energy is managed in the country’s non-domestic buildings. They are funded with £3 million from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), on behalf of the Research Councils UK Energy Programme (RCUKEP). The research will address how to use technology, data and information, mathematics, law and sociology to create better energy strategies and behaviours in the public and private, non-domestic buildings stock.

Non-domestic buildings such as offices, supermarkets, hospitals and factories account for approximately 18 per cent of UK carbon emissions and 13 per cent of final energy consumption.

By 2050, the total UK’s non-domestic floor area is expected to increase by 35 per cent, while 60 per cent of existing buildings will still be in use. This means that substantial retro-fitting is likely and planning what techniques to use to save energy, as well as how to implement change with the cooperation of building occupants, is going to be essential.