Profile: Alan has held a number of senior marketing management and commercial roles within the UK Energy and Telecom sectors including positions with TXU, KDDI, Eircom and Irish Life Plc. Most recently he was employed by E.ON (formerly Powergen UK) as Business Development Manager, where he was responsible for the group’s business development strategy and the development of key strategic alliances and partnerships within the UK and across Pan- European E.ON markets. Alan left E.ON in 2004 and subsequently founded the Sabien business. Alan holds a BA Hons in International Marketing and a Diploma in Direct Marketing. As Chief Executive of Sabien, Alan is responsible for Group strategy, client liaison and the identification of new business opportunities.
E2BPulse Interview on Alan O’Brien, CEO, Sabien
E2B caught up with Alan O’Brien, CEO, Sabien, to learn more about how his company is working to improve energy efficiency in commercial buildings through eliminating boiler dry-cycling.
E2B: What inspired you to start up Sabien?
AB: It was as good a time as any really. I had been working in the utility industry for nearly twelve years, the majority of which was spent with companies in a flux of either consolidation or integration so I never felt I was making a real or noticeable difference. Setting up Sabien has been the most rewarding ten years of my career so far. My team’s sheer persistence and dogma are the two themes that have got the company to where it is today.
E2B: What advice would you give to businesses looking to cut their energy use?
AB: Well, first and foremost they have to understand what they’re actually consuming and spending. You would be surprised by companies who either don’t have the capacity to measure gas consumption or are still on estimated billing. They may even have automatic meter reading (AMR) that hasn’t been commissioned properly, so the first thing to do is to establish a baseline. For example, a lot of our clients spend up to 30-40 per cent of their gas consumption on heating space and water. There’s a big opportunity in cooling, in reducing [energy use] through [more efficient] lighting, but the first thing is to measure what you’re spending, what you’re actually consuming.
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E2B: What’s next for Sabien then, product wise?
AB: We have one product, M2G and we are currently working on a piece of R&D for another. We also have M3G. M3G came about because around four years ago, a client said after we fitted M2G “can you give us something for air-conditioning?” So we looked into Asia and we found a product that could fit the bill and the company were happy for us to white-label it. We fitted it for the client but we realised that in the UK, summer is a normally a washout. So, outside of data centres, air-conditioning tends to be on for only a couple of weeks in a month – making it very difficult for a client to baseline their energy consumption. Products like M3G are mainly for Asia and the US where you can get great traction and great returns, because air conditioning is on almost all the time in those countries. So, we’ve always led with M2G, but we have initiated R&D for a couple of different products within the cooling and heating sector. We’ll develop the concepts if we can demonstrate a noticeable commercial application.
E2B: How much of a problem is boiler dry-cycling for most businesses?
AB: It’s a very common problem. The reason why businesses install M2G is because every boiler will dry-cycle. Unless the boiler is undersized for the building, which is rare for a commercial buildings, it will dry-cycle, because once the boiler has reached the temperature required to heat the building, the boiler will fire unnecessarily to replace its own heat loss – even if the building requires no heat. Using real time analysis of the boiler M2G is able to identify if the boiler is firing for a genuine heating demand from the building or whether it’s dry cycling and therefore preventing the boiler from firing it completely eliminates dry-cycling which wastes significant amount and energy and unnecessary carbon emissions.
E2B: What are your thoughts on building management systems (BMSs) and getting the most from them?
AB: The majority of the buildings we fit to have a BMS in place. BMS plays a key role in optimising the building control the time lights, air conditioning and boilers are operating and in some case controlling zones within the building. However, there is a misconception in the industry that BMS is controlling individual plant. For example, M2G is fitted to each individual boiler, while a BMS will be monitoring the “common header”, combined temperature of all boilers, it is physically impossible to identify and therefore prevent boiler dry cycling. We’re optimising each individual boiler and we initially we get a lot of push-back from clients. They say “my BMS can do what you do”, but once they and their BMS supplier understand the M2G’s control strategy they realise this isn’t the case. Over 95 per cent of the sites that fitted M2G have BMS and additional savings are delivered. M2G doesn’t compete with the BMS, it complements and integrates with the existing control systems.
E2B: What work is Sabien doing with the MoD at the moment?
AB: We just received the final part of a just under £1.4 million contract. We’re installing M2G in barracks, civilian buildings and commercial buildings for the MoD. For a company of our size that’s a huge contract and for small businesses to gain access to the MoD and the NHS, it can take a very long time, but if you have a very good offering, a proven track record and are financially fit, they will do business with you.
E2B: What are your thoughts on energy efficiency is pushed in the UK in terms of policy?
AB: On the current Energy Bill iteration, there’s very little about energy efficiency, but I believe that’s going to have to change. The cheapest energy supply is the energy you don’t use. It seems to me that we’ve gone through the honeymoon period for renewables, which have their limitations in terms of what the government can offer on subsidies and the predictability of same.
I wouldn’t necessarily want to see subsidies coming in for energy efficiency as subsidies create a false environment for business, because they build a business on incentives and feed in tariffs, then the government decides to change it, investors get burned, employees lose their jobs and the companies go out of business. I think that energy efficiency has a major role to play. One of the big disadvantages for the UK is that most of the current building stock in the major cities is over 100 years old. There’s not really a lot you can do other than a deep refurbishment and there’s not a lot of that going on at the moment.
Engineering in the UK is quite conservative when it comes to retrofit technologies. There’s a tendency not to take the time to understand it as “once bitten twice shy” and it takes a while for people to get on board and trust again. The most important person you need buy-in from in a company is the engineering team. If they don’t like your technology, they’re not going to fit it.
E2B: Aside from boiler and air conditioning, are there any other areas where improvements can be made?
AB: The obvious one for me is lighting, but that’s an overpopulated sector. I think decentralised generation is going to play a major part going forward. You’re reducing the risk of being reliant on the grid and generating your energy off grid. We’re going to see a lot of those projects coming on stream and there’s plenty of funding for those types of projects and it’s just a case of making sure that you have the expertise to execute them. I’m a big fan of ground source heat pumps – anything where you’re not burning fossil [fuels] has to be the way to go… I remember hearing at a conference in Copenhagen that humans evolved from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age, man has always evolved, yet our reliance on energy is still primitive, we’re still struggling to get our heads around renewables… I spoke to an investor recently who said that she was convinced that there’s going to be brownouts in 2-3 years’ time.
E2B: What sort of energy efficiency measures does Sabien use in-house? Do you use your premises as a test-bed for new technology?
AB: We lease our own building and the building we’re in doesn’t even have a commercial boiler. I think if we owned our own building, I might put in a biomass with a couple of back-up boilers, but we’re dictated to by what the landlord can do for us, but we have zone lighting. We believe in good housekeeping – we make sure all our PCs are turned off at night and we don’t print when we don’t have to. We utilise webinars and web based meetings both internally and externally – this helps reduce travel and time.