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paul hyett; The cutting edge of energy-saving

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Earlier this week Messrs Rock, Kirkwood and Cockshaw each received, as presidents of their respective institutes, a letter from Robin Nicholson on behalf of The Edge - a group dedicated to focusing debate and improving co-operation between the construction professions.

No stranger to The Edge (like his fellow presidents, he has been a long- term supporter of its activities), David Rock has been asked to consider how best the riba can support a series of propositions that emerged from the 5th Edge Debate held in April.

Time is running out, had warned one of the speakers, Lord Ezra, who had also indicated ways in which the government might achieve its undertaking to reduce co2 emissions by 20 per cent by the year 2010.

Broadly, 50 per cent of that target must be met through reducing transportation- related emissions and 50 per cent through reducing emissions from buildings. Some progress is being made in the latter category (last week's aj reported the recent research work of Oscar Faber that informs the Part L review), but Building Regulations can have only a limited impact: changes in commercial practices, public attitudes and institutional policies are essential.

The real problem is that energy remains too cheap in this country and there is consequently little incentive to save it - especially for companies for which energy bills comprise only a small part of boardroom considerations. So despite the ecological havoc caused by excessive burning of fossil fuels, curbs on their use through taxation and legislation are unpopular and difficult to impose.

It is here, however, that some of the most interesting and innovative proposals are emerging in the form of escs (energy service companies). The principle is simple: the esc tenders competitively to provide large organisations with a contract energy management service, agreeing to provide a pre-set environmental condition within its clients' buildings for a flat-rate fee.

By optimising the efficiency of the building (thermostats, boiler maintenance, insulation, staff training and improved control systems) the esc achieves a more economic delivery of the energy provision which it purchases on behalf of its clients. Some of the cost savings are automatically passed to the user but the esc enhances its own profits through the savings achieved. The beauty of this system is that it offers real prospects for energy reduction while simultaneously delivering cost savings to consumers. In the case of businesses, this is crucial if competitiveness, particularly in exporting, is to be maintained.

One university was advised that savings of £1 million per year were possible through improved energy management. Paradoxically, that study was carried out in mid-summer - when among the findings was that in one building (unoccupied due to student holidays) the heating was full on and the windows wide open.

Among leaders in the area of energy auditing is Sainsbury's, which self- manages its own stores with a sophisticated computer-controlled monitoring system. Store managers must maintain targets, and receive constant advice throughout the day on areas where sensitive monitoring reveals excessive energy use - for example a running hot tap or open fridge. These initiatives now save that company £17 million a year on its energy bill - while contributing to a safer and greener world for our children.

For full details of Edge on the web see www.cibse.org/edge/edge.htm.

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