I'm the CRE & LO manager Swiss Re's office in Folkestone, UK. Recently, our office received the ISO 14001 certification, which is an international standard for environmental management. As part of this certification, we're constantly looking for ways of how to decrease our energy consumption.
But with buildings it's a bit like with trees – they don't change much and if they change, it's not happening quickly. At least this is what I thought. Well, I was wrong. I'd like to share with you how we managed to turn our office into a power plant in less than two months. Here's what it takes:
1. The right spot
A solar-powered photovoltaic system needs space. During one of our routine controls of the generator on the roof of our building, we recognised that our roof actually is a vast unused space. One our team members said, half joking, "This would be the perfect spot for solar panels." And so the idea was born. Other options for where such systems can be located are unused lawns, building facades or the like. In the near future, research on translucent panels will probably open up a much broader range of applications, for example on windows.
2. Top management support
Swiss Re's senior management is very committed to sustainable energy consumption. Climate change has been a strategic priority for the company for more than 20 years. It is a key topic for a re/insurer, because it is likely to cause more extreme and more frequent weather events, resulting in rising damages and insurance losses. One outcome of this strategic priority is Swiss Re's commitment to renewable energy technologies. Swiss Re co-founded the RE 100 initiative that aims to unite the world's most influential companies in a shared commitment to use 100% renewable power by 2020.
Based on these efforts, decisions were made very fast. It took us only about six weeks from the first idea until the solar panels were installed on our roof – despite the fact that we needed to get sign-off for the project during the run into Christmas. When the panels were installed on the roof, I remember that it felt like a very good work Christmas present. I was surprised by how much support we had for the project, from all levels within the organisation.
3. Get the business case straight
We were able to put a business case together, which highlights that Swiss Re can benefit in multiple ways. Firstly, with the solar panels on the roof, Swiss Re is able to produce electricity on its own. The solar power generates on average 18 percent of our overall energy consumption – depending on the weather. In the summer months we will be 30 percent solar powered. Yes, even in the rainy old UK! Our annual solar production equals to more than ten standard UK households. The solar panels are therefore reducing our energy spent by 18 percent. Secondly, energy that we don't use is going back into the grid and earns money for Swiss Re. Based on these two effects, the project reaches break-even already after 7.5 years. And third, we are able to reduce our CO2 footprint in Folkestone by 20 tones and thus contribute to the global sustainability improvement of Swiss Re.
4. It's more than just economics
One effect that we did not expect is the positive appreciation from colleagues working in the building. They consider the investment as a commitment to Folkestone as a Swiss Re location. So the solar panels give them confidence on a personal level and make them proud to work for an environmental conscious company, that acts to make the world more resilient.
5. Consider the local environment
Good intentions don't always come without their challenges… After seven weeks, we recognised a significant decline of performance of our new solar plant against what was anticipated. We looked into the connectors, the steering module and cross checked the sunny hours for anomalies. But nothing unusual appeared. We were a bit puzzled and finally checked the roof for broken panels. Only then we discovered that we had ignored a force of nature: seagulls. As Folkestone is a coastal town, the birds are our constant company. For most tourists they are an inherent part of the scenic sea view. But almost nobody thinks of them as a species that is very effective in covering solar panels with guano - a very effective light shield! We're now looking into netting the whole roof area, as we otherwise would have to clean the panels every other week.
At Folkestone it's seagulls, somewhere else it might be large falling leaves. The key point here is that you need to consider your local environment.
And the journey doesn't stop here for us in Folkestone. What we want to do next is to reduce our energy consumption in the building. With lighting being one of the big energy consumers in our building (it uses approximately 20 percent of our total energy consumption), one of our ideas is to look into installing LED lighting throughout the building. This would also have the potential to reduce our carbon footprint, as well as significant cost savings.
Obviously, Folkestone is a relatively small project for Swiss Re. But based on the experiences we make in this smaller location, Swiss Re is now able to identify suitable locations for larger solar plants. I'm relatively new to the company, I've been here for about nine months, and this project is very special to me for two reasons: First, I'm personally very enthusiastic about sustainability as it helps to preserve our planet. And second, because I can tangibly see how my Logistics team and I can make a positive impact here in Folkestone and other locations.
RE 100 http://there100.org/re100
Corporate sustainability report 2014 http://reports.swissre.com/corporate-responsibility-report/2014/cr-report.html#section-intro
Our environmental management and ISO 14001 certification http://reports.swissre.com/corporate-responsibility-report/2014/cr-report/footprint/management-system-and-certification.html
Category: Sustainable energy: Solar
Location: Swiss RE Folkestone