Next month marks a year since Ovo Energy unveiled its Plan Zero pledge to halve its customers’ carbon footprints by 2030. Ovo has set itself the mammoth challenge of kitting out 5 million homes with low-carbon technologies to lead the transition. Utility Week catches up with Kate Weinberg, Ovo’s director of sustainability, to discuss how technology and the green recovery is helping meet the target and why Covid-19 should not distract us from the threat of climate change.

“While the pandemic has changed the way we live, work and play, it doesn’t change the fact that the climate crisis is one of the biggest challenges humanity faces. With the economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic now at the forefront, we believe the world has been given a rare opportunity to build back better than before.”

While there has been much talk around the Covid-induced economic slowdown, Ovo’s director of sustainability Kate Weinberg says the company has been accelerating its Plan Zero objectives.

Launched in September last year, Plan Zero is a six-point plan setting out how Ovo will mobilise its customers to form a “zero-carbon community”, helping them halve their total lifestyle carbon emissions and eliminate their household emissions by 2030 – two decades earlier than the government’s net zero commitment.

Says Weinberg: “Focusing on the environmental imperative and setting that as our north star helps us develop the right objectives as a business and drive the right behaviours for our members.  If anything, we’re accelerating our actions to deliver on Plan Zero’s objectives.”

“Green businesses, which support a zero carbon future through the creation of sustainable jobs and pro-climate innovation are crucial, not only for our immediate economic recovery but also to ensure a viable long-term future”, she adds.

One of the six commitments made by Ovo last year was to achieve net zero carbon for its operations, underpinned by science-based targets for emissions associated with powering and heating its buildings and vehicle fleet. Weinberg says the company has already made some big steps regarding its fleet.

“We’ve made great progress delivering on the core objectives in Plan Zero. For example, despite significant organic growth and the acquisition of two businesses in the past 18 months, we succeeded in decoupling our environmental footprint from our business growth between 2018 to 2019.  Our emissions from our operations and vehicle fleet reduced by 18 per cent per employee and 30 per cent per pound of revenue.  Soon we’ll have the results of our emissions from electricity and gas and we’re expecting a reduction there too.”

Technology as an enabler

Technology is set to play a major role in the transition to net zero, with smart meters being seen as a key enabler for consumers. While the rollout has seen its fair share of setbacks, the government is aiming for a minimum of 85 per cent coverage by 2024. Ovo recognises the need for the rollout to be a success and Weinberg says more than half its energy customers now have a smart meter.

“We believe that smart meters are the gateway to a range of products and services that will transform energy systems for the long term. Over half of our Ovo Energy customer base are already reaping the rewards of having a smart meter in their home. We understand that they are a key enabling technology for developing a flexible energy system, which will help the system operate more efficiently and allow for increased renewable energy integration, ultimately reducing carbon emissions.  Installing smart meters in more UK homes is also a really important part of our strategy to lead the transition to a zero carbon energy system because we can’t help our members improve the way they use energy unless they have data and insights on how they use energy in their homes.”

In a bid to help customers better utilise their smart meters, Ovo launched an upgrade called Ovo Beyond which allows them to receive personalised energy-saving insights and actions using their smart meter data, minimising wasted energy and reducing carbon emissions.

“It’s like a decarbonisation programme for the home, nudging you through little actions along a pathway to long-term decrease in your footprint”, Weinberg explains.

Through partnerships, such as with battery company Sonnen, Weinberg believes Ovo can accelerate its ability to deliver on its promise to optimise 5 million homes with flexible, low-carbon technology. Elsewhere, the company recently launched its Climate Changers programme – a £1 million initiative to educate children and young people and encourage them to take action on the climate crisis.

She continues: “We’re developing technologies and solutions that will make our customers’ homes smarter. They will have better connected digital devices that use energy more efficiently at times when energy is most renewable in a way that helps to balance out the peaks and troughs in energy supply so that we can avoid turning on fossil fuel power stations.

“Our research with Imperial College London found that adding the flexibility from thermal storage to electric heating can save £6.9 billion in total system costs and represents one of the lowest cost pathways to heat decarbonisation.

“We’re accelerating our ability to deliver by investing in innovative partnerships – such as a partnership with Sonnen to test how home storage batteries can support electricity networks, and being part of a world first flexibility trial in the Orkney Islands – Project TraDER – to optimise renewable energy integration into the UK’s changing energy markets.”

Green homes grant

Last month, the government enacted the first step of its manifesto commitment to improve energy efficiency with a scheme to revive home insulation grants for homeowners. In the summer economic update, chancellor Rishi Sunak unveiled £3 billion of investment for environmental measures as part of a broader package to revive the economy.

As part of the package, the Green Homes Grant scheme is offering vouchers worth up to £5,000 to help homeowners to improve their property’s energy efficiency, with a higher ceiling of £10,000 for poorer households.

Yet Weinberg strikes a cautious tone when asked about the new scheme. Whilst Ovo is “hugely supportive” of its aims, she says the scale of the challenge outmatches the funding.

She continues: “Given the scale of the energy efficiency and decarbonisation of heat challenge, we don’t think the £2 billion Green Homes Grant is enough to match the size of the challenge of decarbonising the UK’s 27 million homes to reach net zero.

“Unless adequate funds for energy efficiency measures are available, progress towards maximising energy demand and carbon savings and reducing consumer energy bills and creating more comfortable homes will continue to be undermined by the UK’s inefficient buildings.

“Unless there is a clear roadmap on the decarbonisation of domestic heat up to 2050 and stronger support from the government for the deployment of energy efficiency measures and low carbon technologies in the short term, I don’t think private investment will be sufficient to deliver the lowest cost decarbonisation of heat products and services to customers.”

Working from home

Like many other utility companies, Ovo is not immune to the challenges posed to working life as a result of the pandemic. With the company focusing so much on reducing its carbon footprint, Weinberg sees an opportunity in the fact employees are commuting less.

“Changes to how we work necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic have shown us how effective flexible working can be for many teams across the business.  We’ve used this momentum to embed far more choice into our day-to-day working lives as lockdown eases.  Connecting more through digital channels, and travelling less also has a positive impact on our carbon footprint.

“There are plenty of benefits for all of us and our business, including more choice for employees, and less impact on the planet, so we see it as a win-win.”

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