Utilities should be considering sustainability as an “urgent health and safety issue”. That was the sentiment from senior industry delegates convened at a recent roundtable discussion, hosted by Utility Week in association with TCS.

One water company executive insisted that the journey to net zero should be everyone’s responsibility, not delegated to one team or one person within the business. “Carbon is in everything so it needs to be in everyone’s job description, just as cost and health and safety already are,” they said.

The roundtable followed the recent publication of the Beyond zero carbon report which explored the potential for net zero to be a catalyst for wider business change across utilities.

The intentions of the companies represented at the event were laudable, with high level commitment to achieving net zero, but there was broad acknowledgement that the sector is at the start of a long journey of cultural change.

Utilities have pledged to meet ambitious carbon reduction targets, in line with UK government commitments, but there is yet more work to be done to ensure the necessary infrastructure is in place to deliver on them. As such, rapid changes at every level of an organisation will be required.

Participants acknowledged that collaboration must be at the heart of this change – between the energy and water sectors, with regulators, with customers, and across the supply chain. So, in short, collaboration, collaboration and a bit more collaboration.

But while the industry leaders at the event agreed on the importance of working collaboratively, there is scope for utilities to do more – and swiftly.

Crossing sector lines

One attendee from an energy company said that there is already a willingness to talk across company lines and share insight, but admitted that “we just need to do more of it”. The group questioned if more could be done to harness the “untapped synergies” between utilities to drive efficiencies in other areas, like improving network resilience, for example.

The discussion touched on encouraging examples of water and energy companies successfully partnering to better understand customers’ vulnerabilities or sharing information when a power outage has occurred. “What are our interdependencies and how can we understand that better to make sure we’re more resilient to extreme weather, for example. Collaboration in this space is really important,” added one water executive.

Unfortunately, at present, resilience and sustainability are often viewed as two separate conversations within organisations, and their objectives are sometimes conflicting. For example, low carbon materials may be untested and considered as a higher risk in extreme weather than less sustainable alternatives. There is a need for utilities to take a more joined-up approach to these discussions.

Initiatives like the government’s energy innovation fund could help to facilitate this by encouraging more formal cross-sector partnerships where both investment and risk is shared. Despite welcoming interventions like innovation funding, the group agreed that “we can do more to encourage collaboration between retailers and power networks, or between energy and water”.

Tackling innovation blockers

Using collaboration to unlock innovative solutions is key to tackling the net zero conundrum, but the group identified a number of barriers that often hamper progress. One participant suggested that client organisations can play a significant role on this issue by encouraging the supply chain to work more collaboratively and incentivise the adoption of fresh ideas and new technologies. “It doesn’t need a wholesale policy or framework change to really push a shift in the culture,” they added.

While some sustainability objectives can be achieved through incremental change, many aspects of the net zero transition will require transformative action. Both water and energy regulators came under fire for a perceived lack of leadership in this space, as one attendee quipped that they are often “more of a hindrance” than a help.

“There is a real mismatch between the warm words from various regulators and their action,” they added, lamenting a lack of support for utilities’ sustainability journey through decisive action and investment.

But the criticism was not solely reserved for the regulators, with the participants squarely acknowledging utilities’ weaknesses in their approach to sustainability. The level of engagement with customers on the issue of carbon was highlighted as one such concern. There was agreement that the net zero transition offers a “golden opportunity” for the sector to improve communication with consumers, but this is yet to be fully realised.

“There is a danger of seeing customers as one block,” warned one attendee. “We need a lot more customer segmentation.” Echoing this concern, a senior leader from a water company added: “Utilities aren’t that good at understanding the people using their products. We’re an order of magnitude behind other sectors and companies, like Amazon and Sky.”

As the discussion drew to a close, the group reflected on the key takeaways from the debate and reiterated the importance of viewing carbon and sustainability through the same lens as any other business activity, like cost or health and safety – a pervasive concern for every department and every individual. As one sustainability leader wryly put it: “Everyone has to take individual responsibility and recognise their sustainability impact so that one day, hopefully, I’ll be out of a job.”

Creating a clever solution 

Digitalisation is fundamental to the net zero transition, with companies starting to adopt a range of new digital tools to support their carbon objectives.

One key priority is tackling scope one emissions – which relates to the green house gas emissions that a company makes directly, for example through the use of company vehicles. But understanding the energy footprint and identifying opportunities for conservation is no easy feat – which is where new technologies and data insights can play a crucial role.

TCS is no stranger to harnessing digital tools like artificial intelligence and the internet of things (IoT) to help support its sustainability objectives, particularly around scope one emissions.

The sheer scale of the business, which employs around half a million people and operates in more than 42 countries, makes tackling direct emissions a particularly complex issue. It’s a challenge that is further complicated by the varying regulations and approaches to sustainability across the different regions in which the company operates.

But despite this challenge, TCS has committed to reducing its carbon footprint across the entire group by 70% by 2025, primarily by addressing its scope one and two emissions.

The company turned its attention to analysing its real-time energy consumption patterns using an energy digital twin alongside prediction and forecasting models. TCS initially focussed on analysis of energy consumption at its flagship office in Chennai.

The level of detailed insight allowed the business to monitor energy usage and wastage at the site, and ultimately identify how emissions could be reduced without making significant new investments.

From this pilot project at the Chennai office and subsequent rollout across the wider business has emerged TCS’ Clever Energy platform, which allows multiple energy functions to be monitored and controlled. This includes heating and cooling, process energy optimisation, demand response, intelligent tariff management, and carbon management.

The IoT-enabled platform also supports integration with systems and assets like smart meters, sensors and building management systems, allowing a more joined-up approach to the monitoring and control of scope one emissions across an organisation.