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Energy efficiency in the workplace: which innovations are showing the most promise?

8th February 2012
Whether it’s ceiling tiles that absorb heat, or a thermostat that can 'learn’ people’s behaviour, the challenges posed by getting our buildings more energy efficient is throwing up some exciting innovations. Louise Bateman finds out from the experts the energy efficiency innovations showing the most promise.
Investing in energy efficiency innovation might appear like an unnecessary luxury – especially in these austere economic times – when you look at the staggering amount of energy and carbon emissions that could be being saved right now by UK businesses through existing measures. 

Whizzy new stuff may have the wow factor but, as Ian Meikle, head of the Low Impact Buildings programme at the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) says, we need to be careful about "parachuting technologies" when it comes to getting organisations and individuals to waste less energy. 

"One of the things often said is that we have the technologies that we need, but we don’t necessarily apply them in the right way," he says.

But without innovation, where would we be? 
Take LED lighting for example: a few years ago, it was hard to see the benefits of a technology that cost a fortune and delivered poor quality lighting. This year, though, experts are predicting a boom in LED, a technology that can deliver 80 per cent energy savings, plus high quality lighting – and is now economically more attractive than alternatives on a whole-life basis. 
The reality is energy efficiency poses more challenges than it addresses right now and, without new inventions, we’re unlikely to be able to tackle them with the urgency required. 
As Clare Hanmer, Technology Strategy manager at Carbon Trust Innovations, puts it: "There are so many barriers to energy efficiency. It’s not that anyone is missing a trick, it’s just a huge complex problem. You may overcome one barrier, but other barriers get in the way."

Human behaviour is one of the bigger challenges; we all know we need to insulate our properties, so why aren’t we all doing it? 

According to Anna Simpson, managing editor of Green Futures, we’ve hardly begun understanding how to overcome the psychological barriers to energy efficiency. 

"We need to do more research on how people behave, on how we advise them and on how they adapt to solutions. There’s no point in airtight buildings if people can’t open the windows," she says.

Then there’s the challenge of our ageing building stock. The UK has some of the oldest and 'leakiest’ properties in the world – most of which will still be standing in 2050, the target year to cut carbon emissions by 80 per cent. That creates some real headaches in terms of the energy solutions you can apply, especially if you take into consideration over two million of UK properties are in 'Conservation Areas’ and a further 500,000 are listed or have protected status due to their significant architectural heritage. 

And we should not forget the importance of nurturing small businesses and entrepreneurs, often described as the lifeblood of the economy. The innovations UK companies develop don’t just promise to deliver green jobs and growth here, but will help keep Britain at the forefront of the global race to develop low carbon good and services. 

No one is more aware of that race then Jaya Shandmoorthy, director of Enterprise and Innovation at the Building Research Establishment (BRE). His role doesn’t just extend to running the BRE Innovation Park in Watford, but Innovation Parks in China and Brazil. 

"There’s a tremendous amount of innovation going on globally, not just in the UK," he says. "And what may be innovative in the UK, many not necessarily be innovative in other countries. Transferring knowledge is what is truly cutting edge and innovative," he says. 

So, what are the most promising energy efficiency innovations out there right now?

Here’s a few our panel of experts told us they liked the best:

Described as the "natural energy solution", SolaVeil is a glazing technology that can be retrofitted to an existing window or be applied to new glass surfaces.The technology enhances natural daylight in a building, reducing the need for artificial light by projecting daylight into a building interior. At the same time, sunlight is cooled when it passes through SolaVeil’s 'daylight activated variable optical elements’ (VOE), thereby reducing heat and glare from the sun. 

The technology has been developed by Welsh company Digital Surface Research and is currently being trialled at the Department of Communities and Local Government’s Eland House offices in London as part of the Government’s 'Energy Efficiency Whitehall Buildings’ initiative. 

Its makers say it has a life cycle greater than 12 years and can typically cut building energy consumption via cooling by 50 per cent. Carbon emissions are also proportionally reduced. Returns on investment are typically two to three years.

RACUS ceiling tile
RACUS, which stands for reducing air conditioning units and systems, is the patented name for an energy efficient ceiling tile developed by a company called Datum Phase Change Ltd.

The RACUS ceiling tile is made out of 'phase change material’, which enables it to absorb heat at levels above 23 degrees centigrade, store it and then slowly release it when the temperature in the room drops. 

It’s a passive system that has no energy or long-term maintenance and lifecycle costs and which helps cut the carbon emissions of a building. 

It was awarded the Skanska Green Solution award in November 2011 and is currently being trialled by BRE in its Victorian Terrace project and at the offices of the Department of Energy and Climate Change at 3 Whitehall Place, London.

Energyflo Dynamic Insulation
Dynamic insulation works by using the heat escaping from a building to warm incoming air through the insulation layer, effectively turning the building envelope into a heat exchanger. 

Energyflo Insulation Technologies has patented Dynamic Insulation technology, which can be used in a variety of ways in a building’s fabric, including walls, roofs and floors in both commercial and domestic settings.

According to Energyflo, its insulation product raises the temperature of incoming air by as much as eight per cent while delivering a 25 per cent improvement in energy efficiency compared with traditional insulation materials. It says the technology, which is relatively new, is also cost-effective.

Energyflo has already licensed its Dynamic Insulation technology to a number of partners in the UK including Proctor Group, SpeedDeck and Jablite.

The technology recently picked up the Climate Change Opportunity Award at the 2012 EEF Future Manufacturing Awards.

Nest Learning Thermostat
Currently only available in the US and targeted at the domestic market, the Nest Learning Thermostat is the invention of Tony Fadell, who helped design the iPod. 

The smart thermostat promises to cut 20 to 30 per cent off the average household energy bill. It does this by 'learning’ about a house’s heating and cooling patterns and the presence and habits of the people who live in it. 

Sleak in design, the Nest has wi-fi so it can be accessed via the web and can be controlled remotely via a smartphone app.

It takes about a week to programme itself and is as easy to install as a light fixture, according to its creators.

It currently retails at $249, but according to Nest will pay for itself in less than two years.

Launched onto the market at the end of the last year, the Nest is currently sold out.

EnergyLogix has been developed by UK company SenseLogix and provides automated control of plug-in devices, such as PCs, vending machines and photocopiers, in commercial and public buildings. It bridges the gap between a building management system (BMS), which controls heating and ventilation systems and lighting, and plug-in control devices, such as timers.

The technology uses discrete metering 'nodes’, which are installed behind plug sockets into the wiring of the building. These nodes then communicate with a central control system through the building’s ethernet. As well as intelligently controlling the plug-in devices, the nodes can connect with the BMS and any smart meter installed in the building. 

EnergyLogix also includes an online dashboard to make it easier to see when and where energy is being used.

According to SenseLogix, the technology can deliver energy savings of between 30 per cent and 70 per cent and has an average payback period of two and half years. 

Parans Solar Lighting
Developed by a Swedish company of the same name, Parans Solar Lighting provides natural light to a building’s interior through a system of outdoor receivers, fibre optic cables and luminaires inside. 

The receiver tracks the sun passing the light through the optic cabling to the luminaires. The system is particularly effective for rooms that do not have any natural light. The light performance from one system is suitable for approximately 40 square metres. 

Available commercially, Parans is sold globally, and the technology has already been deployed at South Bank University, London, and Edinburgh University in Scotland. 

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