Our Ian Byrne celebrates 25 years at NEF and looks back over his quarter century

Author: 02/04/2015

It's exactly 25 years since I started work at the National Energy Foundation, and I thought it might be worthwhile looking at some of the changes over that period.

Back in 1990, the Foundation was set up in Milton Keynes as a way of carrying forward some of the initiatives initially undertaken by the Milton Keynes Development Corporation. One of these was to take a technically sound, but not user-friendly, way of measuring a home's energy efficiency and turn it into a more helpful scale. At the time, it was still quite a radical concept that you could even measure performance using a whole-house energy label. But it had been tested on new homes in Milton Keynes, and we expanded it to the National Home Energy Rating (NHER), turning it into a simpler scale from 0-10. Within a couple of years, the concept had been picked up by the Government, rebased onto a 0-100 scale and launched as the Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP). At the time SAP was seen as inferior to NHER, but able to serve as a common basis for NHER and other, more commercially focused initiatives. 25 years on, and SAP has become part of the fabric of energy efficiency in a way that we'd have found it hard to imagine. It may still not be perfect, but it provides a widely recognised tool and has put back many of its initial omissions (that we had included in the NHER). And as Lord Kelvin (almost) said, if you can't measure it, you can't manage it.

Energy management in non-domestic buildings and industry was also relatively in its infancy. The National Energy Foundation wasn't really involved in this until the mid-1990s itself, when we took over management of the Energy Efficiency Accreditation Scheme. And although there were some pioneers who understood the need for measurement and verification, a lot of measures were still being installed on the basis of sales claims and the hope of a quick payback. In the early 1990s there was a particular problem with crude boiler energy managers being sold on the backing of unsubstantiated (and unlikely) claims. We have moved on since then, but there's still probably not enough recognition of the benefits of energy saving in the non-domestic sector. Energy management has improved; the original quality management standard (BS5750) became internationalised as ISO9001, and then spawned an environmental management standard (ISO14001) and – after a brief existence as a European Standard EN16001 – an international standard, ISO50001, for energy management. It's also good to see that energy management has gained additional guidance through standards such as ISO50006 on energy performance indicators and baselines, and the – still under development – ISO17747 on determining energy savings in organisations, both of which I have been personally involved with.

Energy efficiency and better energy management don't just happen in a vacuum, and although cost and efficiency savings are valuable, they are still important for wider environmental considerations. In 1990, few of us took much notice of "global warming", as it was still called, although this was possibly my main motivation for joining the Foundation. Twenty-five years on, there are increasingly few people prepared to deny that global climate change (a more accurate term) is a real threat. As a small charity focused on energy, the Foundation has to some extent been on the sidelines, watching with a mix of anticipation and horror as international jamborees, such as the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, and Kyoto and its endless follow-up conference of the parties have first raised hopes then dashed them again. But we do see some long-term movement; China is belatedly coming on board, driven in part from the discovery that the public don't like it if you trash their environment, and the US continues to provide technical but not political leadership. And within the Foundation we have from the early NHER years consistently provided carbon equivalents for reported energy savings, and I am still proud of our venerable, simple online carbon calculator that's been running for the best part of 15 years. 

That reminds me that at the start we had just one PC (and a golfball typewriter) for 5 staff; the Internet was still a twinkle in the eyes of some far-sighted academics, and mobile phones were heavier than bricks (and none of us could afford one anyway). We did have a fledgling website from 1996 onwards, optimised for 800px screens using Netscape. Some gains in efficiency have been lost to greater use of technology.

Finally, no review of energy would be complete without a mention of transport, even though it's largely outside the Foundation's remit. In 1990 I drove a petrol car that achieved around 35mpg. Today it's diesel, and over the past 5 years (I keep full records) has averaged 62mpg. But I also cycle to work most of the time, which I didn't then and am fitter for it, too. Conversely, my air travel footprint has worsened, despite using Eurostar for a majority of my European trips in the past few years – in 1990 there was still no Channel Tunnel – as real fuel costs have failed to keep up with inflation. 

So to summarise, the past 25 years have seen plenty of changes, many of which have been positive. I haven't even mentioned that both our buildings now have PV arrays on their roofs, the near universal adoption of EU energy labels on white goods, the ground source heat pump that heats our all-electric office giving it low emissions (and even lower energy use), or the faster and more reliable train services through Milton Keynes (yes, despite the bad press, my own experience is that they are much better, although considerably more expensive in real terms and more crowded). But there's still much to do: fuel poverty hasn't been eliminated, UK CO2 emissions are falling far too slowly to meet our long-term targets, and good energy management by smaller companies (SMEs) is still too rare and expectant on unrealistic financial returns. I probably won't still be at my desk in another 25 years' time, but I hope that my successors will find it as rewarding (if occasionally challenging) as I have done.