In this episode host Jon Slowe talks with Mark Apsey, Managing Director (UK) at energy services company Ameresco, exploring their work with commercial, industrial, and municipal customers.
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In this episode host Jon Slowe talks with Mark Apsey, Managing Director (UK) at energy services company Ameresco, exploring their work with commercial, industrial, and municipal customers.
Welcome to Talking New Energy, a podcast from Delta EE, the new energy experts. We'll be talking about how the energy transition is developing across Europe with guests who are working at the leading edge of this transition.
Hello and welcome to the episode. Often with this podcast we look at households and the energy transition. But today I'm talking with one company who works with larger organisations: commercial, industrial and municipal energy users, helping them improve their energy efficiency and embrace distributed energy solutions. We'll be looking at what's hot in this area, what's on the minds of customers, and what it's like to develop and deliver these types of solutions for them. So let's say hello to our guest, Mark Apsey, who's Managing Director at energy services company Ameresco. Hello, Mark.
Hi, Jon, thanks for having me.
Welcome to the podcast, Mark. Not all of our listeners will know Ameresco. Many will, but many won't, I guess. So can you start with a brief elevator description of Ameresco and your role there?
Of course. Yeah. Well, Ameresco, we are an energy services company and our business is entirely focused on identifying and delivering energy efficiency and renewable generation projects for, as you said in your intro, municipalities, but also industrial and commercial customers. So across all sectors, very much behind the meter.My role, I'm the managing director for Ameresco here in the UK.
Okay. And an idea of scale, might be number of employees, number of projects, amount of capital invested, something like that?
Well, globally we're about 1500 employees actually now, and our headquarters are just outside Boston in the US and we are delivering last year over a billion dollars of revenues associated with the work that we've been doing. So reasonably substantial, 22 years young.
Okay. And how long have you been with the business in the UK?
So I've been with the business since it entered into the UK back in 2014 as part of an acquisition, and I've been helping to grow our operations here on this side of the pond ever since.
Great. Well, to bring your work to life a bit, can you give us maybe three project examples, maybe pick some contrasting projects to give our listeners a field for the type of projects you get involved in?
Yeah, of course, no problem at all. Well, three projects. So a project we've just finished very recently, in fact, in London, for the University of West London, was to go in and decarbonise a couple of their estates and they've set themselves a net zero target of 2030, which is quite common. We see lots of targets being set by lots of organisations and our job was to go in and really help them find what they could do and then implement it. They were lucky enough to get some grant funding in the UK the Government announced a couple of years ago now; a public sector decarbonisation scheme, grant funding solution for the public sector. They managed to secure themselves £5 million of that. And we've just finished really exciting projects. Actually, one of my favourite that we've done most recently, we've installed solar photovoltaic and thermal panels on one of their campus buildings and combined that with 16 ground source heat pumps which are attached to it. Quite novel, actually. And I think the largest, actually, combined system in the UK to date, attached to 34 boreholes, going 180 metres deep in well, the heart of West London. So it's a very built up area, residential area. Very exciting.
Does that take care of all of their heating and cooling needs or part of it?
Well, almost. We're thinking it's going to do most of the heating and they've got gas boilers as backup still, but they'll be going to the first winter season coming up and we think they'll be able to do all of their heating at this particular side through this system. So effectively taking out all of the carbon in the heat that they use.
Are you owning and operating that or do they pay for that as CAPEX?
There's an interesting model. So this is a grant funded solution, so we entered it as their partner. Actually, this is the third phase of work that we've done for the University there to deliver the project and guarantee the savings. So this project is going to save something like 530 tonnes of CO2 across the campus per year as it goes forward. They've not paid for it themselves, but the UK government paid for it and now it's operational.
Great. Okay, there's one. We could talk all day about these projects, Mark, so I'm going to have to control myself with my questions. Give us a contrasting project as the second one.
Okay. A different project, actually, still in the public sector, but for a hospital. So, back in 2019, we did some work for Wexham Park NHS Hospital, which is a 588 bed acute care hospital which serves Slough in Berkshire, just to orientate it. And that was a classic energy performance contract that we did, whereby we went in, identified some work to be done, which included desteaming the site, putting in a brand new energy centre with three low temperature hot water boilers, and the one and a half megawatt combined heat and power: gas fire, combined heat, power plant. And a distribution network across the whole site. So a brand new low temperature hot water network serving over 30 plant rooms. It's quite an intrusive piece of work. New energy centre, new distribution pipeworks, in a running hospital, and that was loan funded and the loan was therefore, it's going to be paid back out of the savings. And we're currently into our third year of a 15 year performance period to operate and maintain the assets as well. So a little bit different from the university project.
Yeah, that project. You've got the incentive then, for those assets to perform, basically to deliver those energy savings.
Yeah, absolutely. And that's the sort of model that underwrites a lot of the work we do, in fact, because investors want to make sure, or customers, whoever is putting the capital in, want to make sure that the savings are going to be real. And our big differentiator is that we stand behind and guarantee the savings for the projects we put forward. And from a savings perspective, that one saving over £700,000 a year for the hospital, which is fantastic, and over 1600 tonnes CO2 a year as well.
Great. And last example.
Right, last example. Well, I really want to just mention, because those two projects are fantastic and respectively a few million pounds of spend and intervention to decarbonise, but we've got to go a lot faster, a lot deeper and do a lot more.
So really excited to talk about a project we're just getting started on that, in fact, which is with Bristol City Council. So Bristol City Council was the first local authority in the UK to declare a climate emergency back in 2018. And when they set ambitious 2030 targets for the whole city as an ambition to get to net zero, and they have as a city at 950,000 tonnes a year of carbon emitted, so a substantial amount.
And the City Council itself has done lots of fantastic work already with their own team on energy efficiency retrofits into buildings and rolling out EV charging networks. And they've also started and invested in their own starter of a heat network too, in the city, which is a fantastic and progressive thing to do. But what they recognised very early is that to really have that scale and step change of difference in decarbonising, they needed to partner with private companies and bring in private investment to go alongside any government investment.
So we've just been awarded and setting up a 20 year partnership with the City to really tackle this for the authorities of state, but also for the wider Bristol consumers.
We actually had Bristol on a podcast probably about a year ago, before they'd appointed you, Mark, talking about the process and their attitude to it. So it's nice that yeah, well, congratulations on winning that project and nice that you're able to talk about it a bit on this podcast. And presumably that will see you doing lots of different things from heat networks, from combining power, from PV, heat pumps. It could embrace a really wide range of solutions for the City.
Yeah, that's the intention. Right, so we're a clean technology integrator and we can bring together all of the best technologies currently on the market to achieve the goals of the organisations that we're working for. And in Bristol, it's a really great environment because we can bring together battery storage, local solar generation, microgid solutions, classic energy efficiency retrofits lighting and controls, that kind of thing.
But we can also do lots of different contracting models, so it's capable of bringing in grant funding, but it's also capable of moving on and doing things like energy as a service model, which maybe we talked about a bit more, but that's an emerging way of getting private financing.
Okay, so three really nice project examples. Mark, now I wanted to ask you, the hottest topic in the energy spectrum at the moment, of course, is the energy crisis and rising energy prices. The households are insulated to some degree in different countries from these price rises, but the sorts of customers you're working with are typically not insulated from these price rises. So how is that affecting you? Is the phone ringing off the hook, so to speak, at the moment, are project economics looking much better? Or are they less focused on these sorts of projects because they're so worried about just keeping their heads above water?
That's a great question and I think there is definitely more pressure to act. There was always the decarbonisation imperative and a lot of our work is driven by that. But right now, with energy prices where they are and even concerns about just resilience where we have the energy that we need through the winter and going forward, I think it's brought it into even sharper focus. And in fact, as a business, we're not completely immune, right? So cost rises in the energy space work through into the price of equipment that we can buy to carry out interventions and improve the situation. But if those sorts of things are running through a 10% 15% increase, we're seeing energy prices depending where you are in the world, 100% plus increases in some cases in the energy that you buy. And that actually increases our value proposition because the more energy you save, obviously, the less you have to spend on energy. And with it being so much more expensive, people are certainly, definitely looking around and looking for solutions that we can provide.
So more interest from the market, a good stimulus to act. Are you seeing that translate into deals or... I guess the lead time on your projects can be quite long in terms of working up solutions with customers. So has it translated into deals yet or do you think it will?
I think it will, Jon. There's obviously a very acute issue here and there's survivability questions perhaps that the businesses are looking at and how they're going to make ends meet from a budgetary perspective. And of course, the best time to act would have been well before this crisis, but kind of the second best time I was thinking is right now. And so, yeah, there is a lead time into doing the project because it's real engineering, right? You've got to go out to the buildings, you've got to find physically what you can do to intervene and create a business case and then work through the funding and so on. So you can... Three to six months to sort of get that really kicked off.
And these are big investment decisions or long term agreements for your customers. So I imagine you have to sell the project almost a number of times. You got to sell it to maybe the energy manager or facilities manager, you've got to sell it to the financial director, probably other places as well. Yeah.
And it's about having good conversations with customers right at the beginning and understanding exactly what the particular needs of an organisation are and what they want to achieve. Because the proposition we said right at the beginning, whether you want to decarbonise and certain people in an organisation will be absolutely focused on that from an ESG perspective, or whether you're looking at the finances and thinking, how are we going to reduce microgridsthis bill going forward, or how we're going to ensure that we've even got energy. And a lot of the solutions we do provide energy resiliency as well for customers with microgrids and backups and all that kind of thing going forward. So it is really about understanding in each customer exactly what they need for their facilities and then being able to bring those blended technologies together.
And do customers come to you often with predetermined ideas about what the right solution is, or are they nearly always happy to leave that to you as the experts to propose the right solution?
I think it's a mixight., right. And we're a very flexible, independent, engineering focused business, so if a customer has got a particular project, they think, well, we've done a bit of work, this is absolutely what we want to do, let's talk to Ameresco and we can deliver it for you. And that's a negotiation around that project.
But our preference, I guess, is because we cover all technologies, we like to get in a partner with a company or organisation, bit like Bristol and say, well, let us come up with the projects, because we do this every day. We've got engineers across the UK, the US and Canada out there looking at buildings and we know what works. So let us put it together in a package that works and gets you the most energy savings for your particular criteria.
And are you seeing any trends or changes in what the optimum or best solutions for your customers are? Either what you think is the best solution or what customers are coming to you with saying, I'm really interested in ground source heat pumps, for example, rather than cogeneration.
Yeah, there is a trend away, actually. I mean, ten years ago, everybody wanted to put in gas fired combined heat and power plants where there was a demand for both power and heat. And it makes loads of sense. And from an engineering efficiency perspective, it is a great technology, but now we're seeing organisations come through with very much more. I guess, stronger thoughts about, we must get to net zero, therefore we have to eliminate fossil fuels, therefore we can't put in a gas fired CHP. So then they're looking for other technology. And that's where you get things like heat pumps coming to the fore, I think, except for high temperature applications. But industries, that depends. We could get into that.
Yeah. So like that University of West London example of those 16 ground source heat pumps. And are you finding... How new are some of these all electric solutions or non gas solutions to Ameresco? Or even if they're not new to you, can you find sufficient engineers for that expertise?
Yeah, the thing about heat pump is it's not actually that complicated. It's a reverse fridge cycle, effectively. And there are plenty of people who understand how fridge works, and it's just sucking out the heat from the ground and then converting it and operating it. So I think it is an emerging space, and we're seeing lots of new technologies come out. In fact, I was having a conversation with an institute a couple of three weeks ago where they're looking at developing really high temperature heat pumps to try and get away from this perennial problem, which is, what do we do about the secondary circuit? Do we have to upgrade all our radiators? Do we have to put in bigger pipes? Do we have to rip out all of that side of the system? Or can we just replace boiler with a heat pump?
Yeah. And does it take you time because you're taking a risk on that, or in some models, you're taking the performance risk on that? Does that take you time to get comfortable with, or can you back that risk off? Or would you start with something small first to understand it, how would you approach newer technology?
Yeah, there's a general question, a specific question. So with heat pumps, we've been installing heat pumps here in the UK for the last two years or more. We've got a lot of installations that are now up and running. We know how they work, we know how to integrate, we know how to do it. But I think in general, as new technologies come along, we're a clean technology integrator so we absolutely have to make sure we understand the science behind the technology we're proposing. And our engineers are expert at looking at well how does that fit with this particular system, in this particular building, what's there already? Will it work? Are we comfortable with it? And then we can take a view.
Yeah. Okay. Is scale an important aspect in this business, do you think, Mark? And I'm thinking of if you've got the number of projects, if you've been around for a long time, if you got involved in many tens, hundreds of projects, you've got a really strong base of experience and knowledge. And when you're taking the risks, the performance risk, maybe the longer, bigger scale you have, the more comfortable you can be taking that. So how much does scale matter? Or is scale the wrong metric? Is it experience rather than scale?
I think, well, it's an interesting question. I mean, in general, we just need to do more, right? So we've got to do more, we've got to do it faster if we're going to do something about decarbonising the planet anytime soon. Scale, I think for me personally is important in that respect. We don't want to be doing lots and lots of small things. We have to be agreeing, this is the programme, this is the direction, let's get on and deliver across every building that you might have, or every estate, or absolutely everywhere we've got to go. From a risk perspectivee, we operate and aggregate buildings together. We work in some very small buildings, so we'll work in community centres and libraries as part of a portfolio of projects, but right up to huge kind of utility scale battery projects in South California.
Yeah. Okay, so I'd imagine, as you say, scale is important through impact, making a difference. And the learnings that you get across different projects in an organisation like yourself must be really valuable as well, where you've installed those heat pumps in University of West London, and a similar project comes along in a different part of the UK or in Canada or the US. And you can pull on that experience that you've learned.
Yeah, absolutely. And that's how we get comfortable with it.
Well, I've mentioned risk, we talked a little bit about risk and I see a big part of the energy services business as transferring risk. Some customers may not be comfortable financing the projects themselves or be able to. Some might not want the performance risk, some might not want the technology or even the energy price risk if it's a cogeneration scheme. So are you seeing any trends in what proportion of customers want to pay for the assets themselves and take that risk themselves? And what proportion really don't want to take that risk and want a company like you to take that risk?
I think there is a general trend to explore more the transfer of risk through these energy as a service type contracts. So if you think about Bristol, for example, a lot of the mobilisation of investment there will be based on us coming in and investing in the physical assets. People will probably be very familiar with power purchase agreements for green power. And an energy as a service agreement, to my mind, is very similar. It's just you're potentially selling, yes, renewable generated power, but you could also be selling heat and you can also be selling savings and wrapping those together in a comprehensive energy services agreement, which means that the asset is paid back for a longer time. Now, it's not all about pushing risk. One way, of course, the counterpart of that is the organisation that we're investing assets in has to be around for 10-15 years and want to have a 10-15 year, 20 year contract, very much like you see in the kind of commercial power purchase agreement world.
And what about the trends with that? You said more exploration of these factors. Do you see trends towards customers wanting to either more comfortable in signing up for long term deals as 15-20 year deals, or more comfortable in transferring the risk to yourselves in terms of performance? Is that changing or is that still relatively static over the last five or ten years?
No, I think it's moving. We're having more conversations with more different types of organisations, certainly in the UK, about this kind of model and how it can work and where organisations are capital constrained, perhaps, or just have better uses for their own capital because they can invest in a new production line and generate a lot more returns than that. We're looking for our investors that want to invest in projects that we're doing, are looking for, which can take a much longer term view, provided there's a sort of stable counterparty.
Yeah. Is that stable counterparty difficult sometimes if it's, I don't know, a hospital is probably going to be around for a long time, as is a university, but a manufacturing firm in a very competitive global business. Have you found it difficult to get comfortable sometimes with those long term contracts yourself?
Yeah, that is always the challenge in the discussion about the balance of kind of risk and reward and who wants to invest and who doesn't, and so on. And it is more difficult in the private sector and in those sorts of manufacturing organisations because they might not have that long term horizon. But the fact is, I always think at the moment you're buying energy and you're not in a performance contract, you're just buying it from your utility and you're not getting any service. And so those manufacturers are much more likely to be around if they do enter into decarbonising efforts and resiliency projects, and even if they're funded by us.
And that's something we have to get comfortable with our investors, but that can be dealt with commercially and contractually to sort that out. But the fact is, along the way, then, those entities are saving more, whether it's energy, carbon or improved resilience, so they're more likely to be around if they do it than not, if you see what I mean. So it's the kind of you got to trust that it's going to work and we back that up with guarantees it will. But you have to jump over that hurdle, I think, as a manufacturing organisation, for, to take your example.
Yeah. Mark, you've been in this sector, working in the sector quite a long time, as you say. A huge amount still needs to be done with commercial, industrial and municipal organisations to hit our carbon targets. A massive amount. So what advice would you give to... Maybe this is slightly cheeky, not necessarily your competitors, but to people that are looking to work in this sector. What may be the biggest things that you've learned about working with customers over the last several years?
Yeah, I think there's a few things, really, whatever you're doing, whether you're doing it as an individual or part of an organisation like this, you have to understand and clearly articulate what your value proposition is. But the most important thing, actually, and we talk about it a lot, is to listen to what customers want, have those conversations, really get under the skin of organisations and really understand where their energy is going and also what's important to them going forward. And then just make sure that you have absolute and relentless focus on delivering for the customers. And that's the beauty about being that's why I love being part of Ameresco. We're an independent engineering company and so we're free to pick the best solutions and we're not looking to sell a particular product that we make, for example, or we don't do anything else. This is all that we do. So it's a really exciting thing. And delivering for our customers is the last job, is what we always say.
Yes. Is that a cultural thing, do you think, around... because... You talked a few times about listening to your customers, delivering for your customers? To what degree is that embedded in Ameresco that you see is different, maybe from other organisations?
It's totally embedded and if you hear our CEO speaking as well, he'll always be talking about customer focus and exceeding customers' expectations and delivering for our customers. And I don't know, I mean, maybe we're all engineers, perhaps, or not, but many of us are engineers and so we're trained for a very early age to focus on solving problems and delivering them and making them work. And I don't know, maybe that's something to do with it, but it, but it's definitely a huge, huge part of our culture and people who come and work within our organisation are very focused on wanting to do that. Yes, to work for a business and to progress and learn, but also really to deliver in this decarbonisation as you transition.
And the listening to customers bit at the beginning is sometimes I think we need a huge number of engineers in the energy sector, but we also need either engineers or other skills that have that customer mindset. And you talked about solving problems, but you can solve problems in a technical way to really understand customers. I think it's a slightly different skill set. So I don't know if you've got an example or two you can bring to life where that investment in working with a potential customer or really understanding them made the difference in a project going ahead rather than not going ahead.
Well, that's a good question.
I'm putting you on the spot.
Yeah. You are talking general terms, right? So I mentioned one of the projects we did, right, at beginning University of West London, and there's a lot of projects across the UK in the last 18 months or so that have been funded by the same scheme. And the public sector compensation scheme requires a certain measure of pounds, the lifetime tonne of CO2 saved to qualify for the money. But to do that, you've really got to go in and there and say, well, what blend of projects can we put in? And there's a bit of a focus on heat, there's lots of heat pumps. What blend of projects we can put in, where can we physically fit them and talk to the customers about? And it's not that easy.
Right, so the projects I spoke about, not much land around the university, particularly, definitely need heat pumps to qualify for the grant, lots of access and so on issues. So we had lots and lots of discussions about how we physically going to actually do it and where can you drill these 34 holes 180 metres deep that doesn't disrupt the university operator's life? People are learning, people there being educated the whole time.
How do you do this in a way that is sympathetic to the needs of that organisation to keep running and the residents. In terms of deliveries, we had just in time deliveries, we couldn't park up on the street. So there's a lot of talking and communication, not just with customers, but with neighbours to those customers as well, to get things happening and get things going and get things working and be sure that you can do what we hope to do in a particular project.
Yeah, I'm intrigued now, in a dense urban setting, how you got all those 34 holes in there.
It's tight, it's a good size. It is very tight.
Mark, let's move then to the last part of the podcast now and bring out the Talking New Energy crystal ball. And I want to wind the clock forward just five years to 2027. And if we imagine ourselves in five years' time, what will be different from today, do you think, in terms of how your customers, so commercial, industrial, municipal organisations engage with energy efficiency? So what do you think we'll see different in five years' time from today?
Crystal ball time. Right. In five years' time, I hope that we've done a lot of it, because we won't have much time left to get greenhouse gas emissions going down rather than up. But I think some of the stuff we've talked about today will just be standard. So things like heat pumps, renewable generation combined with batteries locally, that will be the first thing you do. It's like lighting ten years ago and switching to LEDs. I mean, people, that will be... they'll be very understood and I think they'll just go in everywhere they possibly can.
I think, for other customers, it depends where you are. So we didn't talk too much about industrial applications, but a little bit. But in industry, I think what's going to happen and the engagement is going to depend very much on the processes that exist and I think we're going to see things like green hydrogen coming through, for example, for the very energy intensive industries and that's going to take time to develop. The UK's got some good clusters that it's looking at and so on, but that's essential because certain processes need high temperatures, they can't decarbonise another way, so that's where any green hydrogen we can make, for example, should go.
But I think as well, what we're going to see this is a massive leap, but perhaps what we need to see, we need to see smart grid solutions absolutely everywhere and we need to make that investment now, because there's no pathway to net zero without much smarter grid that allows you to some of the constraints we see now. You can't connect to renewable generation on this site because you can't get approved from the DNO in the UK or you can't, district network operator in the UK, or you can't connect a heat pump because the district network operator is not ready to give you that juice, those electrons right now. So I think that's going to be essential. We must see it by then. If we haven't seen it by then, we're all in real trouble because it's going to stay electrifying at the pace we need.
Are you running up against those problems today already in terms of grid capacity, or do you start to see it?
Yeah, no, absolutely, you do see it now and it is a constraint on what can be done, because if the local grid network can't accommodate a two megawatt heat pump here, but you've got it, then you've got to do something different and it needs to get smarter. You can't just work on the maximum capacity of all the connected loads, for example.
Yeah. And there isn't time to build a bigger grid.
Yes, and I don't think there's a plan to do it yet.
Well, it's really good trends and predictions, Mark. I like the phrase be where lighting was ten years ago. Everyone gets lighting refits now; ten years ago it was a bit new and risky. Green hydrogen is essential for certain industrial applications and getting over those distribution networking strengths. Yeah. Keep our fingers crossed. Well, I can keep my fingers crossed, but you've got to do a lot of that work in the next five years, so good. Best of luck with that. I imagine you have a busy five years ahead.
Thank you, Jon. Yeah, I think it will be.
And Mark, thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. It's been really interesting hearing your stories, your perspectives, the projects you've evolved in and some of the opportunities in working with commercial, industrial and insulin organisations. Thanks very much.
Hey, thanks, Jon. Thank you.
And thanks to everyone listening. I hope you enjoyed the episode, hope you learned something new today and look forward to welcoming you back to our next episode, next week. Thanks and goodbye.
If you're as passionate about the energy transition as we are, then please keep in touch. You can follow us and me on Twitter, LinkedIn or subscribe to the podcasts on your chosen podcast platform. If you like the podcast and like sharing, then please do rate us. And to listen to archived episodes, to read transcripts and to see the latest Delta EE insights then please visit www dot delta hyphen e e dot com.
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