Opinion by Oliver Lee

When I first joined Zestec Renewable Energy some 18 months ago, my views on businesses practicing sustainability were cautiously pessimistic. I had just finished writing a thumb-numbing dissertation on Sustainable Real Estate solutions for Millennials, that in broad strokes (to summarise 96 pages of Arial 11) had found that while consumers and corporations did care about sustainability in principle, macroeconomics and price reigned king in all decision-making – if it doesn’t make (or save) money, it doesn’t make sense. And well, seeing that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global carbon emissions, this level of corporate eco-unfriendliness filled my glass half empty.

So, when I got the position as a customer engagement executive in an early-stage firm looking to be disruptive in the renewables space via Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs), which are essentially a capital free way to get renewables on site and immediately reduce energy costs (and carbon, let’s not forget about the carbon), I thought companies would be champing at the bit and we would be bringing home the vegan bacon.

Yet, a couple of hundred meetings down the line with what seems like every company in the UK, the reality of the renewables space surprised me. Aside from learning that moving a meeting back actually means moving a meeting forward in time (the most embarrassing email chain I can put a claim to), here are some of the lessons I have learnt from the renewables sector 18 months down the line:

Lesson 1: Businesses are just people, and people care. Even the proverbial “evil corporation” is just a collective of people. There are many talented professionals seeking to decarbonise the UK in the most pragmatic way possible, whether it be from within organisations, governmental regulation or service providers. It is reassuring to see many of the UKs most influential businesses (Amazon, Bentley, Tesco) take measurable action on the sustainability front, so have hope!

Lesson 2: A net zero strategy is not as binding as it sounds, and a pledge to do better does not guarantee action. Whether you are looking to improve your organisation from within, a conscious consumer or supplier, make sure to interrogate what is being done on the environmental front with a healthy amount of scepticism.

Lesson 3: There is a knowledge gap. Importantly, for many companies there is little consensus on whether on site renewables fall in the remit of finance, procurement, facilities, operations, sustainability or whether they need some external consultancy on the matter. Albeit, this is understandable, since when does an ice cream manufacturer need to be an expert in solar PV? Fortunately, there are companies out there that will take care of developing and maintaining a renewable asset throughout its life cycle, particularly if you have entered a PPA with the right partner.

Lesson 4: Corporate decision making takes time. Any decision on integrating renewable energy into their operations, be it via capex, financing or PPA, takes resources and time. You really can’t get solar overnight! Even for the most adhoc corporations, the decision-making timeframes and resources allocated internally to sustainability are hard placed to be in line with ambitious net zero targets. So, say your business is facing a hike in energy cost at the end of your existing energy contract, it is important to account for enough time to come up with renewable alternatives and for overcoming the hurdles to install these, such as for instance, DNO applications, planning permissions, structural surveys etc.

Lesson 5: Decarbonise or die. Record high energy bills are one of the pressing challenges facing UK businesses today. When I first joined the sector, we would see average grid tariffs floating at around 12 to 14 pence per kilowatt (ppkWh), now we are finding the average has shot up to 20 ppkWh and have seen some nose-bleeding figures at 39ppkWh. Granted, this won’t last forever, with prices forecasted to fall back somewhat, that said, one can hedge against this kind of energy price volatility by migrating off the grid using the power of renewable energy.

Lesson 6: There are solutions of all shapes and sizes. From multinational corporations looking to materialise a net zero strategy by 2030 to small enterprises looking to minimise costs, there is a solution for every business to transition into renewable energy. The good news is you can find what may work at little to no cost, with some organisations offering free desktop surveys and indicative studies for solar PV systems, battery storage solutions, heat pumps and beyond.

Lesson 7: Yes, the principle remains the same, a sustainable choice must be backed by an economic incentive. But what was most surprising is that these can go hand in hand. You can generate clean energy and save money. You can reduce carbon and overheads. Renewable energy is now more accessible and affordable than ever, and there is a wealth of options out there for those businesses prioritising their capital for other needs.

All in all, the lessons I have learnt so far have broadened my perspective of this space, where I now sit cautiously optimistic yet very aware of the urgency and complexity of the environmental challenges we face today. To those graduates out there unsure of a good place to forge a career, there is no need to curb your ambition for the sake of sustainability, the reality is that you can (and should) do both. I’ve been lucky enough to work with an organisation that beyond having an environmental vision, has been flexible and rewarding to be a part of throughout the pandemic and beyond, for that I feel grateful. Zestec is a team of very bright (and kind) people, who are on a mission to decarbonise the UK.