ESG Voices: Digitalisation for Decarbonisation!

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by Richard Turner
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Mark Bawtree, Head of Global Sales and ESG at Akila

The built environment represents perhaps the greatest immediate opportunity for companies and organisations to reduce resource use and costs. Globally, it represents 40% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), and uses the same percentage of raw materials. That translates to 33% of total global final energy use.

So, how do we assess a building? How can we understand all its moving and static components, then figure out to what extent everything can be optimised? We spoke to Mark Bawtree, Head of Global Sales and ESG at Akila, a Shanghai-based company which has developed a data-driven solution that provides unprecedented visibility into the potential for sustainability within built environment assets. 

How would you introduce yourself?

I have 18 years of experience in renewable energy and sustainability, working with a range of cutting edge technologies and solutions. Before joining Akila, I ran technical sales and consulting for waste-to-energy systems, hydrogen fuel cells, and battery systems, including metal air batteries. 

Following this I was in software and engineering applications (SEA) with a solar engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) company that actually combined a lot of these technologies. Finally, for the last 3 years I was running a sustainable consultancy in Shanghai, as well as supporting the 12 offices globally, providing green building certification consulting, monitoring systems, energy audits and building performance verification, sustainable materials and, also, ESG reporting.

What is your sustainability story?

My sustainability story is really around the commercialisation of these technologies, with one of the most interesting in recent years being around the use of ‘digital twins’, enabling that next level of visibility, via complete digitalization of a built structure, to really see how the operators and equipment are performing on each of the sites, permitting data-driven decisions to optimise those sites. It’s actually surprisingly eye-opening how much data can be collected and effectively used for significant cost reductions, and more importantly these days, carbon footprint reductions. The key piece of understanding is of where, when, what, how and therefore why carbon is produced, so action plans can be created, analysed, and implemented effectively.

Why did you join Akila?

I have to say when I met Akila it felt like it was a fateful event. Essentially, with the sustainability consultancy I'd been looking at all these different solutions for buildings, including digital twins, monitoring systems, control for optimisation solutions, and also the complexity of implementation of those systems as well, but each aspect was being worked on by many different companies. When I ‘accidentally’ met Akila, I was blown away that they were combining all these solutions, so all the performance data of a portfolio of buildings could be seen and easily cross-referenced in a single cloud-based platform. 

Therefore, organisations can possess a single platform for all their data collection and reporting, especially around ESG reporting, which requires a large amount of data collection and cross-referencing. This also helps to understand the opportunities and impacts across one or all their sites, working with the operational team on the sites to streamline their reporting through digitalisation.

What is the most crucial aspect of the transition to sustainability? 

That’s a very tough question to answer… everybody is on very different levels of transition, not just as an organisation, but also across the same organisation, with different knowledge levels and different priorities that quite often are led by what is fashionable of the times, with no real framework. A lot has happened in the last year with companies prioritising that framework building, but in the process we have discovered the huge challenge of obtaining the data that is potentially available. So in light of this, I would say the most crucial part right now is really understanding what stage your whole organisation is at regarding sustainable transition, and for me the only effective way, and therefore crucial way of doing that, is through digitalisation. Digitalisation for decarbonisation!

The first level of digitalisation is the collection of your site data, no matter whether owned, rented or leased, the equipment on-site, sensors, the operators, the inventory or parts information, all into one location. If this is more than one site, then cloud-based is the more effective and secure solution. This enables quick and easy review of this data, identifying exactly what you have, and again more importantly, what you are missing. We very often discover that there is a large amount of information that has been lost with time, for example with new equipment installations, changes in operators at the sites, system breakdowns (including simple PC crashes, losing that data) etc… Digitalisation therefore also needs to come with the ‘3Ts’: transparency, traceability, and trackability.

The second level of digitalisation is about streamlining that data collection, improving the granularity and dramatically reducing the human touch points. I am very much talking around buildings here, but for ESG reporting in general we should be looking for all aspects of data collection improvements, which is why at Akila, for example, we have developed solutions for digitising maintenance, cleaning and security teams, and more recently IoT- based waste tracking. Essentially, we are connecting on-site data collecting systems around the methodology of the closer to the source of the data the better, i.e., IoT meters, from the BMS or EMS systems, from the operators directly into the platform. Therefore, avoiding paper or digital (Excel, Word, ppt, pdf, etc…) data collection, avoiding the, these days, slow process of digital reporting. Digitalisation enables collection and can be collated quickly and easily with specific data, then designed to go to the various stakeholders in the next step of an ESG transition, which is what I like to refer to as ‘visualisation’ (i.e. tailored automated reporting).

How can we reduce the noise in ESG?

I like how you refer to it as ‘noise’, as in many ways that answers the question in itself, in the fact that noise exists because there is no clear direction… The fact that there's no real official standard and or framework still. Not to say there is nothing, as there is definitely a lot coming through the channels with government and private organisations, including many software and certification bodies that are developing ‘add-ons’ or ‘expansions’ to their existing solutions. So, though these are great steps, they are also adding to the noise from the companies as they aren’t sure which one to follow. There just isn’t a ‘one size, that fits all’ ESG solution. So, it's for the companies to understand what their investors, customers and/or stakeholder’s priorities are and to provide the data that fits their requirements.

One part of ESG reporting that seems to be almost universal, though, is carbon accounting. Where in the past, financial accounting was key to understanding the investment risk of companies, now carbon accounting is highlighting how much visibility companies have, of not only their operations and assets, but also their upstream and downstream, to make sure those aspects are optimised to the extent of being carbon neutral. Scopes 1, 2 & 3 provide us with a clear macro-level global framework of how we can define GHGs, with one small problem, namely that most companies’ carbon footprints are >90% from Scope 3, which is something they can only influence, not control. This again, though, is where a single source cloud-based platform such as Akila supports this work, because if you can control and optimise your scopes 1 & 2, you can share this through such a platform to your upstream and downstream for their Scope 3 carbon accounting, and vice-a-versa! The one thing you can control, especially as a buyer, is that the vendor must report their Scopes 1 & 2 into that platform. Obviously, making sure such a platform does provide the level of ‘3Ts’ you require to solve the problem of the current x2/x3/x4 accounting of that carbon.

One wish - what would it be?

That companies would very quickly and easily understand the benefits that Akila provides towards streamlining data collection and reporting for their organisations, obviously! Once you have that next level of digitalisation and visualisation, that is when the fun really starts, as the data collection and reporting is streamlined, allowing you to spend more time on the important part of reviewing that data to drive cost reduction while decarbonising across your organisation.

Sustainability is cost effective, when you can see what needs to change.

We have implemented many digitalisation systems with our clients providing investment grade data that have shown where they should actually be spending their money, on both energy and operations. Once implemented,  we were and continue to  track the full impact of those changes, due to high granular baselines. Add in benchmarking with real-time notifications (i.e. governance), which allows for a quicker response to issues, resulting in further cost and carbon reductions. 

Digitalisation and visualisation with Akila essentially opens up a whole new level of data-driven decision-making to make cost, without the hard graft of data collection, and report building, which is, critical to  changing the world!

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