Sustainability chief: energy efficiency investments are the ‘first fuel’ for net zero transition
Investors should push their corporates to spot and seize energy efficiency opportunities, argues Stephanie Kelly of Redwheel
The net zero debate within the global investor community focuses largely on cleaner energy and reducing usage.
Energy efficiency is part of this conversation, but takes a less prominent position in the investment cycle, argues Stephanie Kelly, head of thematic sustainability at London-based investment manager Redwheel.
Kelly explained to Net Zero Investor why asset owners and other investors should push their corporates more to spot and seize efficiency opportunities as she thinks there is a lot to gain.
You told me investments in energy efficiency are the ‘first fuel’ for the transition to net zero. What did you mean by that?
In a world dominated by fossil fuels, maximising the energy we use is something that doesn’t require transformational change to the energy system; it involves using what we’ve got more effectively and conscientiously. relies on actions that are broadly known, are often highly cost-effective, and generally quick to introduce. Only around a third of energy in primary energy products like coal and gas are actually used in the final energy service, so the waste is high.
Sure, but if we approach this from an investor's point of view, where do you spot instant opportunities?
Oh, examples of particular opportunities include energy-efficient technologies that have few barriers to widespread and rapid deployment, and where public policy or other developments have unlocked, or are soon likely to unlock their potential. At a global level, there are great opportunities in LED lighting, a range of industrial efficiency equipment and practices such as energy management systems and potentially electrification in some cases, high-efficiency appliances and air conditioners, and high-efficiency aviation and shipping.
Additionally, I see exciting opportunities in technologies and businesses that seek to overcome key barriers that stand in the way of widespread and rapid deployment of key energy-efficient technologies and practices, such as the development of enabling infrastructure such as smart meters and grids, expansion of key supply chain bottlenecks, including skills, and innovative business models that seek to address other barriers, such as capital cost and behavioural dynamics.
If we focus on specific sectors, which ones have the greatest investment potential for efficiency gains?
We see the industry, buildings and transport sectors hold the greatest potential. Switching from fossil fuel-based heating systems to electricity-powered heat pumps dramatically improves heating efficiency. LED lamps have driven rapid efficiency gains in lighting through growing market share; this should accelerate. High-efficiency appliances can drive further gains.
And yes, transport is a logical candidate.
Yes, in transport, electrifying road vehicles offers the greatest step-change for efficiency. Reducing vehicle weight also offers significant potential, as in aviation. In aviation and shipping, more efficient propulsion systems and operational process offer gains, with more efficient alternative fuels currently unviable. Enabling a shift to less energy-intensive modes of mobility such as cycling instead of driving; rail instead of flying, can structurally reduce energy demand.
In terms of efficiency investment opportunities, I guess emerging markets are the most interesting markets to be.
Yes, the greatest potential rests in emerging economies as these markets grow so rapidly, so will their demand for energy-using infrastructure, products, and services. Emerging economies also present the greatest opportunity to temper future global energy demand through ‘leapfrogging’ advanced economies by deploying more efficient options to begin with. Key examples include high-efficiency buildings and heating technologies, electrified transport and industrial processes, and other enabling infrastructure. However, these options also tend to have greater barriers to adoption, which will require policy action to fully address.
You mentioned new tech and digitisation to unlock more energy efficiency.
Yes, digitisation and automation are key to unlocking the potential of many of these energy-efficient technologies and behaviours. Digitisation can help reduce ‘non-useful’ final energy demand. For example, digitisation is crucial for optimising a building’s climate control across the building. To achieve greater potentials, digital systems would need to become highly interoperable to allow optimisation between different systems across different sectors and geographies.