How software can help clean up emission-intensive industries

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SA Mathieson

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Published: 28 Oct 2021

Non-residential buildings generate 6.6% of greenhouse gases emissions – equivalent to aviation, shipping and cement-making combined, according to the World Resources Institute, a US environmental research organisation.

For a typical office or educational building, equipment such as computers used by those working there will take up about 40% of its energy requirements. “The other 60% is up for grabs,” says Jake Williams, associate director for building physics at Bath-headquartered engineering consultancy Buro Happold. “You might be able to influence that by plus or minus 50%.”

But design choices over a building’s “regulated” energy requirements – cooling, heating, humidity controls, lighting and equipment such as lifts – have to be based on its specific circumstances. A shallow-shaped building could reduce its energy requirements by using more natural light, but one with less surface area could need less heating. Thick-walled buildings such as cathedrals have a thermal mass that regulates internal temperatures, cutting both heating and cooling requirements, but need more carbon-intensive materials to build.

Urban sites may be partially or fully shaded by other buildings for some or all of the day. The proportion of glass has an impact, and openable windows may provide energy-free cooling for some of the year, but waste heat at others. “There are usually trade-offs,” says Williams. “Each project is pretty much unique.”

Buro Happold uses software from Glasgow-based provider IES to predict a building’s energy use, allowing it to minimise carbon emissions before construction or refitting starts. Williams says software could also be used to explore how people will interact with buildings, such as closing blinds or turning on lights; carry out resilience testing, such as how buildings would cope in the heatwaves that are likely to become more common with climate change; and to take advantage of dynamic electricity pricing, which is increasingly significant given much greater use of renewable energy sources, which vary in output.

Reducing buildings’ contribution to climate change has become a hot issue. “Historically, it’s not been a priority for all clients,” says Williams, but adds: “We’ve seen a huge uptake in what clients are asking for. It’s becoming the expectation on every project to have a sustainability or net-zero story accompanying it.”

The UK government, which is about to host the COP26 climate change conference, has set a legally binding target to the country get to net zero – which means greatly reducing greenhouse gas emissions and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to cancel out the rest – by 2050.

But many companies and organisations want to get there much sooner, with BT, Microsoft, Sky and more than 60 local authorities pledging to reach net zero (in some cases just for carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas) by 2030, while O2 is targeting 2025. Buro Happold has claimed net-zero carbon status since April this year and plans that all the new buildings it works on will be designed as net-zero carbon by 2030.

The complex work of improving buildings’ energy efficiency, along with industrial processes and other emission-heavy corporate activities, looks like natural territory for specialist software. IES’s Virtual Environment software enables users to create digital twins of buildings to test how they perform during 12 months of typical local weather, as well as with different occupancy patterns, such as being used only in office hours or around the clock.

For retrofits of existing buildings, users can test options such as new glazing, heating and cooling systems and adding solar panels, using actual energy usage data.

IES’s chief technology officer, Craig Wheatley, says building owners have been focused on energy-efficient design for some years, following a European Union directive in 2006 and tighter targets since then. But their attention is turning to ongoing operational efficiency, with the UK next year adopting the National Australian Built Environment Rating System (Nabers) used in that country for two decades.

Australian energy optimisation company EP&T Global grew as a result of Nabers’s initial introduction, which tied rent increases and decreases to changes in energy efficiency. Its UK clients include real estate investment trust Derwent London, which operates 5.4 million square feet of commercial property, mostly in central London, where it has cut its energy use by 21% through the company’s services.

EP&T typically installs hundreds of networked smart meters in each building it serves, with data taken every 15 minutes, then processed with machine learning to generate alerts and recommendations. These might be relatively simple, such as spotting that a pump that should run only during scheduled hours is working around the clock. A more complex example could propose using external air for “free air cooling” – natural ventilation – to take over from power-hungry air-conditioning units at some times of day in some months of the year.

Sam Gooder, head of UK operations, says recommendations are passed to clients by EP&T engineers. Those running buildings tend to be unwilling to let third parties control them directly, and some recommendations require those using the building to change behaviour. “It doesn’t work as well if there aren’t people involved,” he says.

Such optimisation can cut a building’s power use by one-fifth on average, typically through what Gooder describes as “an aggregation of lots of tweaks and adjustments”, rather than a few big changes. He says moving buildings to net-zero emissions is likely to require new heating and cooling systems – which good operational data can help to justify – and designs that allow the use of modular, easy-to-change equipment.

Advanced process control in petrochemical industry

Chemical and petrochemical industrial processes generate as much as 11.6% of greenhouse gases through energy requirements (3.6%), direct by-products of their processes (2.2%) and “fugitive emissions”, including often-accidental leaks (3.9%). As with buildings, specialist software can help to cut these emissions by improving the efficiency of processes and making accidents less common.

Software can manage the systemic use of advanced process control (APC), which aims to optimise the operation of equipment within oil, gas and chemical plants. Ron Beck, a senior director at Boston-based industrial software provider Aspen Technology, says the implementation of systemic APC typically cuts energy use by 10-20%, with corresponding reductions in carbon emissions.

“It’s a very proven technology, but it’s not been applied that broadly yet,” he says, although customer Dow Chemical claims to have reduced energy use globally by one-tenth over the last decade, much of that by implementing APC.

Aspen also provides software that uses operating data to predict component failures, allowing preventative maintenance to take place and potentially preventing accidents. Italian oil refinery operator Saras uses this with a 54-turbine wind farm that helps power its Sarroch site in Sardinia, providing warnings of developing problems in turbine gearboxes, for example, so they can be repaired before an expensive failure happens. The company also uses data to time routine maintenance during periods of lower output.  

Another Aspen customer, the United Arab Emirates government-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, runs a sustainability dashboard covering its largest gas field that includes real-time monitoring of energy use and fugitive emissions from methane, available to all staff. “It’s changing behaviour,” says Beck, adding that making such data available quickly enables much faster responses.

“Across the industry, people are testing all sorts of technology approaches,” he says, pointing out that setting up plants to self-optimise so they can be run remotely would save emissions, money and time involved in staff travel, particularly for offshore installations.

Product Footprint Management from SAP

Software providers that work across sectors are also doing more to track and reduce greenhouse gases. Users of SAP software suites have been able to use its environment, health and safety management module for this purpose, but in September 2021, the German company announced Product Footprint Management (PFM), designed specifically to measure and report emissions. It will integrate with other SAP components from later this year.

“You can publish product footprints from this into supply chain planning, procurement, logistics, finance over time,” says Gunther Rothermel, head of S/4 Hana sustainability management. Many organisations hold emissions data in spreadsheets, rather than within software where it can be easily accessed and audited, he adds. “With this product, we deliver integration back into the business processes.”

Rothermel says that work to improve sustainability is often industry-specific, and PFM will initially focus on consumer products, retailing and manufacturing, where the need to track emissions is currently strongest, given public interest. The software can also estimate suppliers’ emissions, something of particular importance to industries such as automotive, where about three-quarters of a motor vehicle’s parts are typically provided by third parties.

Responsible Design and Production, another product due out in the next few months, will include functionality specifically for the management of electric vehicle batteries.

Secondmind, a Cambridge-based machine learning specialist set up six years ago, did not intend to be an automotive specialist. But with its lead customer, Mazda, it now focuses on optimising vehicle powertrains – the engine, the wheels and the components that transmit power from one to the other.

Currently, manufacturers typically test engine prototypes by building physical models on which to run experiments. Secondmind aims to make the process much more efficient by providing optimal running profiles for engines, balancing emissions – on which manufacturers are regulated – against other factors such as power output. “We can shave months off the development process,” says chief executive Gary Brotman.

Vehicle makers have a significant responsibility for climate change, with road transport generating 11.9% of greenhouse gas emissions. “Everyone is trying to get to the other side of the green transition as fast as possible,” says Brotman. “The effort is Herculean.”

As with other high-emission industries, he believes that its companies want to make changes, but these need to be realistically based on improving the current situation. “I think the desire for the automotive industry to be a cleaner business is great,” he says, adding that software can contribute. “We know there are processes that are considered dirty that have opportunities to be cleaned up.”

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