A dedicated team of academics from Aston University, led by Professor Dey, secured European funding to set up the Low Carbon SMEs programme in 2017. Our initiative helps Midlands-based SMEs minimise their environmental impact through reducing water, waste and energy consumption. Phase 1 of the programme started off within the Greater Birmingham & Solihull area and has since expanded into the Black Country region due to high demand for low carbon support among local businesses.
So why the focus on SMEs?. Small and medium sized enterprises are responsible for more than 70% of the industrial pollution. More importantly, manufacturing SMEs contribute 64% of the total pollution and only 0.4% of SMEs have adopted measures for CO2 reduction. There is huge potential for SMEs to contribute at least 50% towards the UK’s carbon reduction targets and achieve ‘Net Zero’ through appropriate measures.
Unsurprisingly, larger companies often perform better than their SME counterparts when it comes to environmental performance, as SMEs face many more financial and non-financial barriers. This is where we come in. We help SMEs overcome these barriers by accelerating regional clean growth in the SME sector through supporting businesses to improve the way they use energy and seize new green opportunities. We provided specialist support to companies to reduce their carbon footprint through diagnostics, financial support via energy efficiency capital grants, workshops and collaborations with Aston University researchers.
Eighty-five businesses received 1-2-1 support gaining essential insight into their business’s estates’ energy use; evaluating energy consumption and benchmarking their energy management performance to identify improvement measures. Our advisors identified over 400 implementable energy efficiency measures and funded 45 energy efficiency projects (valued over £340,000).
Our team helped a leading precision engineering company set up remote energy monitoring of multiple CNC machines and provided a grant towards LED lighting and power factor correction equipment. These interventions resulted in a relative carbon footprint of 60 tonnes, which equates to a 25% reduction in the company’s overall carbon footprint with energy cost savings of £17,000 per year. We also provided a low carbon grant to a well-established electrical wholesaler which resulted in the installation of a 100kWP solar PV array, generating an estimated 95,000kWh of electricity in the first year. This reduced their electricity costs by an estimated £9,000 and carbon footprint by 28 tonnes per year; improving energy security by generating their own electricity.
It is important to bridge the gap between academia and industry; facilitating knowledge transfer and bringing together collaborative partnerships. Our university academics play a pivotal role in translating cutting-edge research to solve real world business sustainability challenges; connecting lean practices and process innovation with sustainability performance.
Our project began as a small-scale initiative working with 50 UK companies but has since expanded to 165 UK companies. Additionally, we started out regionally, but due to tangible impacts evidenced very early on, the initiative grew exponentially and forged collaborative networks in Kenya, Thailand, Vietnam and India. This has all been possible through global knowledge sharing and dissemination, and more importantly communicating key learnings, enabling organisations to co-create knowledge and innovate.
Whilst our activities have been driven mainly by carbon-intensive industries (e.g. metal forming, food production, textiles, electronics etc.), we ended up supporting a myriad of SME sectors including the construction, process, logistics and service sectors due to high demand. This clearly demonstrates initiatives can often benefit others, outside the targeted group.
We also discovered boundless opportunities to engage and empower students through offering ‘in the field’ practical work experience. Our project facilitated eight student placements enabling learners to benefit from exciting research project opportunities.
We learnt that proactive engagement, networking and relationship building with external stakeholders were key to delivering successful and impactful initiatives. The project team engaged a wide range of stakeholders including trade associations, universities, Chambers of Commerce and Growth Hubs.
Innovation and ‘thinking outside the box’ are important approaches for maximising success and enhancing support. We are now in the process of creating a digital tool for holistic carbon footprint measurement to facilitate businesses decision-making.