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Earlier this week, Eskom executives spelled a gloomy outlook for SA’s energy supply in the next two years, due to delays in getting the Medupi and Kusile power stations up and running. This signals a return of power management to businesses’ priority lists, and this month’s Green Mile looks at energy monitoring in the office, and the power of knowing where power is going.

Tim James, CEO of local consultancy sustainableIT, says the key to managing an organisation’s consumption is understanding its energy profile.

“Unless you understand how much energy you’re using, there’s no way to formulate a strategy around energy reduction,” he explains.

James adds that while some of the larger corporates are measuring consumption, there are still questions around the level of granularity involved. “They may be measuring consumption at the floor level of the building, but have little understanding of the energy mix in the organisation as a whole, he points out. This includes knowing whether energy is going to air conditioning, data centres or other operations.

“For many companies that are supposedly ‘going green’, changing the light bulbs is where it starts and ends, and this lack of continuous commitment leads to significant energy waste and unnecessary costs,” notes James.

He says IT is one area that can have a considerable impact on a business’ energy consumption, but is often not immediately obvious. “In any office that makes extensive use of technology, IT can be a big energy drain. In some cases, IT can account for up to 40% of the total energy bills in a large company.”

According to James, very few local companies consider a sustainable strategy that looks at IT holistically. “South African IT professionals don’t quite get it yet. I’m not 100% convinced CIOs have got putting sustainability in place as a priority key performance indicator.

In an IDC study released in December last year, analysts identified smart metering and energy management systems as opportunities for reducing carbon emissions. The latter can cut emissions associated with buildings by up to 18%, the report states.

Charl Theron, portfolio manager at IT solutions company nVisionIT, says the first step is determining where the most power is being consumed, after which a business can make informed decisions about implementing energy-saving systems.

“As soon as you begin monitoring, you can see to which specific resources the power is going. Then you can automate and put in presence systems that switch lights and devices on and off as people enter and leave spaces.”

Theron adds that major international companies are putting efforts into creating software and services that simplify energy management, with systems themselves designed to use less energy.

But he adds that few companies in SA are following this trend. “It’s not really a threat yet and people don’t learn unless it hurts them.”

He notes that while high energy consumers like retail stores and factories are feeling the pinch, most of the time the push is still coming from the energy management providers’ side.

Also, because many businesses don’t actually own the buildings they operate in, there’s a need to negotiate between the business and office owner when it comes to changing a building’s energy specifications, he adds.

According to Theron, there’s an interesting dynamic in SA in terms of consumption. “A company would rather spend R100 000 on a generator to make sure it has a steady power supply than implement a more sustainable solution and change its habits to reduce the overall load.”

He says it mostly comes down to ease, as installing an energy monitoring system doesn’t guarantee Eskom won’t load-shed. “It’s simpler to put in a UPS and have guaranteed power supply than setting up an energy management system.”

Theron adds that upfront capex often scares people, and that a R15 000 price tag for a management system that can’t guarantee the lights will stay on may seem risky to businesses.

Larissa Uys, GM of Specialized Distributors, a reseller of the Wattson and Holmes energy monitoring products, says power-saving equipment has only appeared very recently. “People are generally not very aware of their energy consumption, and without monitoring devices there’s no real way to tell how much you’re using.”

She says the big change came when Eskom announced its yearly price hikes, before which people weren’t really looking at electricity consumption. Faced with increasing bills, consumers began seriously considering their energy use, and monitors bring an instant sense of awareness.

“It’s like the speedometer in your car – if you don’t know how fast you’re going, you don’t know when to slow down,” notes Uys.

While the company focuses mostly on home energy monitoring, Uys says there’s also been interest from small offices, which are watching their overheads.

She notes there are many common energy drains people aren’t aware of. “Take things like standby mode. People walk out of the office and leave printers and PCs on standby, and you’d be surprised how much power this can use.”

Even small things like leaving screen savers running or using appliances unnecessarily can add up, adds Uys. “For example, in a typical office you have someone boiling the kettle for a cup of coffee, and 30 seconds later, employee two comes along and boils it again.” Geysers are also often set at very high temperatures, which is not necessary for an office environment, she points out.

“One of the reasons energy saving seems so hard is because there’s not really one device you can just plug in that cuts usage,” says Uys. “It comes down to a lifestyle change – it’s a case of people becoming more aware and informed of how much they’re using.”

James points to the Eskom statement that SA faces a tougher energy supply outlook than anticipated. “Once companies begin being hit with load-shedding again they’ll change. People need to realise there’s a huge constraint on energy and that we need to get involved in managing it efficiently.”

Uys says every incoming tariff hike will renew awareness of electricity use. “Older generations didn’t grow up with an energy crisis, but younger people are more aware and driving changes.”

She foresees development in the energy monitoring equipment market in coming years, as international awareness of the impact of global warming grows.

“There’s more emphasis on manufacturing products that meet Energy Star qualifications and it has gained importance in people’s lives. If you compare where we were a couple of years back to where we are now, it’s picking up gradually.”

Theron says an interesting two years lie ahead, and that by the end of 2012 some really promising initiatives are likely to have emerged. But he adds that real change will only come when driven by Eskom, or if Nersa puts down legislation. “It’s not likely to happen otherwise.”

ITWEB, 28 October 2010

Lezette Engelbrecht

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