Provocation and innovation at XEnergy
By Adam Woodhall — Practical provocation and tangible innovation were the motivational themes explored by some of the best minds in the UK energy industry at the recent XEnergy conference. Hosted in the heart of London at the HQ of the ICEAW, there were reviews of best practices and views looking forward. Opening the conference, Jim Woods, CEO of the organisers, The Crowd and The Curve, said the X stands for exponential change, citing the existential crisis facing the oil industry as an example, and that the aim of the event was to demonstrate ways of dramatically generating energy efficiency.
Closing the event with a stirring keynote, the ‘sage of sustainability’ and founder of Volans, John Elkington, (pictured above) followed up this statement of purpose with the assertion that it is often easier to make something 10 times better than make it 10% better. Looking forward to 2017, Elkington had four resolutions: of disrupt, decentralise, democratise and decarbonise. He gave some stimulating examples, such as a Saudi prince putting $2bn into the transition to a post-oil world and Phillips selling light as a service rather than light fittings.
In between these opening and closing speeches, there was much to stimulate the interest of the gathered minds. The chair of the panel discussions, Catherine Cameron, posed a provocative question by asking, “What happens if organisations stay in their comfort zone”? What became was that those companies represented on the stage were certainly pushing the boundaries of what is possible.
The main envelope expander highlighted was DeepMind, a machine learning and AI business bought by Google, and represented by Mustafa Suleyman, their co-founder. This technology was initially famous for being the first computer to beat the world champion of Go, the exponentially complex board game. Rather than giving DeepMind pre-determined rules about the game, they threw truckloads of data at it, and let the AI learn for itself.
This was comparatively a bit of fun, but Suleyman has much broader and deeper goals for this technology. His vision is for AI to find solutions for good, by optimising current and discovering new knowledge, stating that "we need to massively increase our problem-solving capacity". A good place to start on this was Google's own datacentres. As you might guess, they were probably the most highly optimised in the world, and their human energy engineers were sceptical of AI’s ability to squeeze out any further savings. Suleyman revealed that DeepMind reduced the cost of cooling by a spectacular 40%, sometimes using techniques which were completely against human intuition.
Aiming to knock 20% off corporate carbon emissions is the ambitious mission of event conveners The Curve. Represented by James Potten in an engaging mid-conference presentation, he gave us not just the one C of The Curve, but seven more: confidence, commitment, cash flow, collaboration, cutting edge, certification and carbon reduction, describing it as the world’s first platform for sharing energy investments. Think TripAdvisor of corporate energy.
The speakers on the Leadership and Disruption panels gave a number of practical provocations and tangible innovations, focusing particularly on the importance of the human element of technology. Whilst celebrating the opportunity of technology, Munish Datta, Head of Plan A & FM at Marks and Spencer, suggested that it would be easy to be seduced by it, and counselled on the importance of “training people to use it properly”. He also suggested “the low hanging fruit in energy may have gone but the remaining fruit is getting heavier and easier to pick”.
This was followed up by Ram Ramachander, Chief Digital Officer of Hitachi Europe, who had two tangible innovations: firstly, the dawn of the prosumer, who are consumers and producers of energy, and secondly, that “data scientists are the new super-heroes” of energy management. This latter point was also highlighted by Scott Balloch, Head of Energy and Environment of BT. The telecoms giant consumes nearly 1% of the UK’s energy, and he opined that “Not enough firms see energy as a strategic issue”. When considering how to raise carbon up the agenda, he suggested remembering that “Much as the CFO doesn’t want to spend, he even less wants waste”.
Representing the German high-tech industrial giant, Covestro, their Chief Sustainability Officer, Richard Northcote, certainly suggested that his organisation saw the strategic issue, as they had committed to halve energy consumption by 2030. Refreshingly, he revealed they didn’t know how they were going to achieve it. Going beyond their own emissions, Northcote also detailed how his business was turning CO2 from an emitted waste into a resource used for good.
This innovation tallied with a final provocation offered by Elkington: “that we need to fall in love with carbon”. With that thought resonating in our minds, we departed considering opportunities for exponential change.