Keen businesses should be seen to be clean and green
Adopting "clean technology" doesn't have to cost the earth, whether you're a large global enterprise or a local shop, but it could ensure the long-term survival of your business.
As the population continues to grow, the demand for food, water and energy will rise by as much as 50% by 2030, says the US National Intelligence Council (NIC) in its Global Trends 2030 report. Energy costs alone are forecast to grow by 25% over the next 10 years.
But many business are not doing enough to prepare for this changing world and could be "sleepwalking into a resource crunch", warns Tom Delay, chief executive of the UK's Carbon Trust, a not-for-profit organisation advising businesses on how to reduce their energy usage.
Many businesses could go bust if they don't go green and embrace clean tech, he believes.
Some companies, such as Houweling's Tomatoes in Camarillo, California, exemplify what a totally integrated sustainable operation can look like.
It employs five acres of photovoltaic solar panels to generate one megawatt (MW) of electricity to power its 125 acres of tomato-growing greenhouses.
The company captures and reuses rainwater and water run-off using a four-acre reservoir equipped with filtration technology, while computer-monitored drip irrigation ensures that water and fertilisers are used as efficiently as possible in the production of its hydroponically grown tomatoes. Any excess water is also treated and recycled.
The company estimates that this method of production uses about a sixth of the water and one 10th of the land typically needed to produce the same amount of product via traditional agricultural practices.
On top of this, an 8.8MW heat-and-power co-generation unit captures heat from refrigeration units, water and CO2 for use within the greenhouse and produces enough energy to allow Houweling's Tomatoes to sell some of the electricity back to the grid.
More than 90% of the company's waste is recycled.
While this $200m-plus (£130m-plus) operation serves as a "clean tech" exemplar, the Carbon Trust worries that many businesses are dangerously complacent.
In a recent survey it carried out, executives in Brazil, China, Korea, the UK and the US, were asked about their companies' approach to sustainability.
More than half had not set goals for reducing water consumption, waste production or carbon emissions, and a quarter of companies had no-one with a specific responsibility for sustainability issues.
"One reason that companies are stalling on taking action on resource and sustainability appears to be that they still see this as an obligation and a cost," says Mr Delay.
But "clean tech" costs have fallen dramatically. For example, installing photovoltaic solar panels costs half what it did three years ago, while improvements in energy-efficient lighting mean businesses can now save millions on their electricity bills.
Light Emitting Diode (LED) technology has been around since the 1960s, but it has advanced so far that the latest units now use less than half the wattage of the high-pressure sodium and mercury vapour bulbs traditionally used in industrial locations, while also providing brighter illumination and lasting for up to 10 years.
Dialight, a British company that specialises in LED lighting for large industry and public sector clients around the world, reckons upgrading from old-school to clean tech lighting can save businesses 50% on their lighting electricity costs and recoup the capital outlay within three years.
Geoff Smyth, head of technology and delivery for the Carbon Trust, agrees, saying: "Lighting accounts for 20% to 50% of total energy consumed in commercial buildings, and a lot of the time the lights don't even need to be on.
"With these breakthroughs in LED and lighting management technology, businesses can achieve energy savings of 70% to 80% and see a payback on their investment within two or three years."
For example, one small hotel upgrading 80 lights to LEDs spent £22,000 on the project, says Smyth, but is now achieving annual savings of £6,600 on its energy bill.
Ron Pernick, managing director of Clean Edge, a US-based clean tech research and advisory company, says: "Innovations in visualising energy efficiency, paired with big data, are already having a significant impact on energy usage. Efficiency continues to be the low-hanging fruit for most companies and governments."
For example, C3 Energy, a "big data" analytics specialist, provides software and monitoring systems that can show large and small businesses how much energy they are using and on what processes, then compare these with buildings and businesses in the same area.
As the software builds up a detailed profile of the business, it can then suggest ways energy consumption can be reduced, such as by upgrading equipment
Similarly, Wireless Energy Management Systems (WEMS), whose clients include Marks & Spencer, BT and Boots, provide a range of wireless sensors and controllers that can monitor and adjust a building's entire energy usage, reducing lighting and temperature levels if it is bright and warm outside, for example.
The entire integrated system can be monitored remotely every 30 minutes, and WEMS says it can cut energy costs for any building with an average energy bill of £7,000 or more.
On a much smaller scale, the latest "smart" thermostats can also save businesses and households money on their energy bills.
California-based Nest Labs, founded by two former Apple executives, produces a thermostat capable of learning user behaviour and working out when a building is occupied or not, using temperature, humidity, activity and light sensors.
It adjusts the temperature to match user habits and can be programmed remotely over wi-fi using a smartphone or laptop.
Nest claims it can save 20% on energy bills by managing heating more efficiently, and that adjusting temperature by just one degree can knock 5% off your bill. The main drawback is that it is currently only available in the US and Canada, priced $250 (£165).
Nest spokeswoman Kate Brinks, told the BBC: "We haven't provided a timeframe for entry in to the EU market yet, other than to say this year."
Inefficient buildings account for 43% of the UK's total greenhouse gas emissions, says the Department of Energy & Climate Change, and UK industry could save up to £32bn over the next four decades by reducing carbon emissions and energy usage.
So whether you run a corner shop or an industrial complex, energy cost savings are there for the taking.
Not only will you be saving money, but you will also be making your business more resilient in the face of future energy and resource shortages.