Features - Energy

Decarbonising Construction Steps to Net Zero

Stuart Beasley is Head of Energy Solutions & Generation Services at npower Business Solutions. In this feature for UKCO discusses looking toward 2021 and the steps toward Net Zero.

As we look towards 2021 after what has been a turbulent year for many industries – construction included – one issue that has come to the fore as the UK plans its recovery is sustainability.  With the Prime Minister recently unveiling the government’s ‘Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution’, closely followed by the publication of the long-awaited National Infrastructure Strategy at the same time as the Spending Review, and The Energy White Paper, the focus on delivering a built environment that is fit for a sustainable future is now firmly in focus.

It is estimated that the built environment contributes up to 40% of UK’s emissions – including the construction, operation and maintenance of buildings – with the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) stating that around 10% of emissions are directly attributable to construction.  This includes everything along the supply chain, from the manufacturing of building materials – typically a highly energy-intensive process – through to transportation and the construction process itself.

Therefore, there is a focus on how the industry can reduce carbon in the way infrastructure assets are designed, built and maintained.

Steps are already being taken to address the decarbonisation challenge, with organisations such as UK Concrete recently publishing its ‘Roadmap to Beyond Net Zero’ which looks at how net zero can be met through decarbonised electricity and transport networks, fuel switching, the use of low-carbon cements and concrete as well as using newer technologies such as carbon capture, usage or storage (CCUS) for the manufacturing of cement.

The UKGBC has also recently published new guidance – ‘Unlocking the Delivery of Net Zero Buildings’ – designed to help break down barriers when it comes to designing and constructing net zero buildings.

Similarly, construction businesses are setting their own ambitious targets, including Wates Group targeting zero waste from all on-site operations and zero carbon emissions from operations and vehicle fleets by 2025, and Mace announcing in January that it would be net zero this year.

The National Infrastructure Strategy in particular looks at how UK infrastructure can be ‘transformed’ to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, with a focus on new generation assets such as offshore wind and nuclear, as well as £13bn to accelerate charging infrastructure to accelerate the mass adoption of electric vehicles.

With this in mind, what are the top steps construction businesses can take in the short to medium term to reduce emissions and embark on their road to net zero?

  1. Use sustainable materials – As mentioned, producing building products can be a very energy intensive process.  Therefore, looking at more sustainable materials – which contain lower embodied carbon – should be high on the agenda. It is important to assess the low-carbon credentials of each product used as part of the construction process.  For example, as part of its ‘Roadmap to Beyond Net Zero’, UK Concrete stated that “a net negative industry by 2050 will be achieved by using the natural, in-use properties of concrete which include its ability to absorb carbon dioxide during use, and the benefit of using the thermal properties of concrete in buildings and structures to reduce operational emissions.”  In addition, a focus should also be on the manufacturing process itself, for example, earlier this year brick manufacturer Ibstock announced plans to pilot at least one net zero factory, with the company outlining its intention to set a net-zero carbon goal for its operations in the near future.
  2. Green your fleet – In its Ten Point Plan, the government outlined it would invest £20 million in 2021 on freight trials to pioneer hydrogen and other zero emission lorries. It also announced its intention to accelerate the move to electric vehicles (EVs), however, with the cost of EVs currently higher than petrol or diesel, building the investment case can be difficult.  However, the benefits should outweigh the negatives.  For example,moving to EVs will help reduce Scope 3 emissions i.e. the indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain including up and downstream transportation and distribution, which can often be a requirement for a  customers’ sustainability requirements.
  3. Invest in energy efficiency –  Energy efficiency is a ‘no regrets action’, particularly if you have a plant, office or on-site premises that could benefit from relatively ‘quick wins’ such as switching to more efficient lighting, air conditioning and heating, as well as bigger investments such as implementing a smart energy management system. Using real-time data collection and analysis can enable your business to spot and correct areas of waste, or to assess the effectiveness of each new energy efficiency measure implemented.  An energy audit can identify improvements including looking at times of use, efficiency of infrastructure and processes, and how to change employee behaviour to help reduce emissions or costs.
  4. Improve waste management – waste is often produced when excess materials are ordered for a project.  Each of these additional products has a carbon footprint attached to it, so accurate estimating is crucial, as is having an effective recycling strategy, so these materials can be reused on other projects.
  5. Procure ‘green’ power – Buying and using renewable power for offices and plants is another way to offset carbon emissions. There are two potential options. The first is generating local energy by installing on-site generation. Or, if space or capital are not available, then local generation schemes – for example large-scale solar or wind solutions – can be used to offset future energy demand via a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA). When it comes to on-site generation, there is now a great deal of choice including CHP, wind, solar photovoltaic (PV) or biomass. Organisations need to make sure that any plans for on-site generation are scoped appropriately, so they can assess where the payback and benefits are – for example, for companies with large plants that have significant roof spaces, solar may be the best option.

The recent government announcements are likely to kick off a string of net zero policies and initiatives – including the Net Zero Review and Industrial Decarbonisation Strategy – as the UK prepares to host COP26 in November 2021.  As such, sustainability will be one of the biggest trends next year, so collaboration across the whole construction process and between all parties – including developers, designers, engineers, contractors and building products manufacturers – will be key to success.

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