We cannot solve the energy and climate crises without new products and services that leverage the power of data, and our digital tech sector has the brainpower to deliver them, says Katherine Burden.
I recently hosted a panel debate at Greater Manchester’s 2022 Digital City Festival in front of a room of digital tech leaders and pioneers from across the region.
The aim was to raise awareness of the role digital technology must play in our transition to a more sustainable, net zero economy. Whether the digital and creative tech sector realises it yet or not (more on that below), digital solutions are now so central to the net zero transition that it’s barely possible to disentangle them from each other.
Two years ago, my colleague Amy attended a similar panel session at the 2020 Digital City Festival, where it felt like opportunities for the digital and green sectors to really synergise were just beginning to open up.
Today, the world is a completely different place. Not only have we come through a pandemic that’s pushed us further into digital ways of living and working, but the climate emergency has become more pressing than ever. Net zero, the biggest environmental buzzword of the last 12 months, barely existed when Amy sat in the audience two years ago, but is now an accepted part of doing business.
No surprise, then, that we’ve seen a massive influx of digital tech into every part of the green technologies and services sector, from building technologies and smart energy to waste management. Going green is increasingly about data, data, data – squeezing every drop from every piece of information available to make products and services faster, more efficient, easier to use and more connected than ever before.
The profile of business we find ourselves working with is shifting as a result. When meeting new companies today, I’m almost as likely to find myself speaking to a ‘digital lead’ or ‘data scientist’ as I am a sales manager or director.
Greater Manchester has the potential to be one of the best places in the UK to combine the strengths of digital and green tech. The city region has the largest digital and creative sector outside the South East, and the Combined Authority is actively working on some leading data-driven projects to work towards its 2038 carbon neutral target.
The Mayor has also regularly expressed his vision to make Greater Manchester a globally-leading digital and green city region. The new Energy Innovation Agency and a partnership between Greater Manchester Combined Authority and Octopus Energy Group to create more than 300 high-skilled green energy jobs in Manchester are just two examples of how this vision is bearing fruit.
I was joined onstage at Digital City Festival by speakers from two digital innovators in Greater Manchester that are leading the way in a space that perhaps has more to gain from digital technology right now that any other – energy.
Louis Heywood, Customer Relationship at Q Energy, spoke about how technologies such as IoT, smart meters and AI offer new and exciting solutions to the current energy crisis:
"One of the biggest opportunities for the digital tech sector is within the energy market. With the Government's net zero plans, added pressure from supply chains and customers to provide a more environmentally friendly service, and the recent energy crisis, businesses are crying out for innovative digital tech solutions that can provide cost and carbon reductions.
"Q Energy specialises in smart energy services, including creating flexible energy systems that allow for storing renewable energy generated from solar panels in batteries, then using that energy during carbon-intensive periods of the day when the cost is high, or discharging the energy back to the grid. All of this is being monitored and controlled using Q Energy’s AI-powered digital energy management platform.
"The digitalisation of energy has also improved efficiency in a huge way by reducing operations and maintenance costs, reducing unplanned outages and downtime and extending the operational lifetime of assets. We’re currently living in the digital age of history where everything is being recorded, monitored and distributed in a quick, effective and accurate manner. Through using this modern technology, we’re able to calculate energy consumption needs more accurately, improving efficiency and saving costs in the process."
Tom Timothy, COO at Ovon Technology, detailed how digital tech companies can respond to the challenge through smart home devices, like its cutting-edge radiator valve system:
"We're really seeing technology starting to transform energy use in the home, primarily as customers try to mitigate the increase of rising energy costs. As homes become more and more connected, customers are gaining greater awareness of how much energy appliances in the home use, and easy app-based controls allow for wasted energy to be prevented.
"Most consumer energy costs are primarily driven by heating our homes, and most consumers' homes in the UK are heated with a combination of boilers and radiators. Understandably pumping hot water around your home takes a lot of power and it’s therefore really important to make sure the hot water is only going where needed. Smart thermostats and smart radiator valves, in combination with improved insulation, are therefore crucial to controlling a home's energy use.
"As a market space energy may appear slow-paced, but every innovation has the potential to dramatically alter and improve the world we live in."
"Now is the perfect time to be involved"
Both speakers were eager to highlight the huge opportunities for digital tech companies to become market leaders in a massively growing area, as Louis made clear:
"Coming off the back of COP26 and the current energy crisis, now is the perfect time to be involved in innovative digital tech. Every day new technologies are being developed by companies, such as Q Energy, which are having a positive impact through innovative ideas and digitalisation. If more digital green tech companies begin to develop their own solutions, this is only going to speed up the transformation process."
"If you’re thinking of starting a business around this issue, it’s worthwhile exploring the potential funding available as well as being open to forming partnerships that can offer support on your journey."
So, is the awareness there in the wider digital and creative sector?
My initial conclusion is, not yet. Too many tech companies are still yet to recognise the synergies between digital and net zero. Most of the audience at our panel debate weren’t confident about what net zero means for them.
Our job is to change that. We want to speak to more digital innovators and explore new ways to foster collaboration. We know the opportunities are there; we just need to grasp them.