Business Irish

Saturday 21 September 2019

This man is trying to save the planet - and if he can't save you money as well, he'll pay you

Norman Crowley wants your business to save money on energy costs - and he'll pay you if he fails. How confident is that? He spoke to Paul Melia

Norman Crowley
Norman Crowley
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

Norman Crowley is on a mission. The founder and chief executive of energy-efficiency company Crowley Carbon, he wants to educate the world about climate change - and make money in the process.

With the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement last December, world leaders have sent the message that the way we power our homes and run our businesses is changing. We are moving away from fossil fuels and to renewables.

But the first step to tackling climate change is to reduce energy consumption, which is where Mr Crowley comes in. He says he can reduce bills for companies with an annual spend between €400,000 and €1m. He will pay you if he fails.

"What bugs me is the lack of speed at which this problem is being handled by pretty much everybody," he says. "We can take the costs of lighting down by 80pc (using efficient bulbs and controls), but yet 90pc of sites we visit have old lights in them - which is a no-brainer.

"Say, for example, you're a food company with an annual energy bill of €1m. We can take it down by €350,000 a year. And you don't need any money, we will finance it.

"We have €400m coming from various banks including Santander, Bank of London and the Middle East (BLME) and Close Leasing. With stock market volatility, the pension funds aren't getting the returns. The money men of the world are starved of yield, and they're moving in this direction.

"But if you want to finance it, there's no catch. I insure the risk. I take a bond out with Munich Re - so I pay if you don't get the saving."

But reducing consumption is just one part of the grand plan. The next stage is to take large energy users completely off-grid, allowing them to generate their own power.

The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland says there are some 180 companies across the State with an annual energy spend of €1m. They account for around 56pc of total industrial use. Even taking a fraction off-grid could go an enormous way towards making a meaningful cut in emissions.

"The first thing we do is energy efficiency," he explains. "We reduce your bill by 35pc. It might be more efficient lights or chillers, and there's a two-year payback, which is a 50pc return on your money.

"The next thing in, for example a food company, is to figure out the waste you have, which is food. We take that food, use anaerobic digestion and produce gas. The payback for anaerobic digestion is in four and a half years. Then we install solar. If I put all those things together it means you're off grid.

"Until this year, you needed a government subsidy to do this - but because solar is cheap and technology around energy efficiency so good, it means the blend works.

"If the company paid for all that stuff, it could cost around €10m, or €650,000 per year for 15 years. But we can finance it, covering all the costs including operations and maintenance. The reason we should all be excited about this is we're not relying on Government subsidies. The efficiency piece is the spice, and our payback is going down all the time."

From Clonakilty in Co Cork, the 45-year old father of two grew up on a farm but quickly moved towards technology. He learned to weld when he was 14, before discovering computers and getting "hooked" on writing code.

In 1995, he established technology company Trinity Commerce which he sold to Eircom four years later for £14m.

"I retired at 28, but then I discovered retiring was a bad idea," he says.

With others, he then set up the Inspired Gaming Group which invented the digital slot machine.

"Before we came along, bookies had slot machines with an average take of £200 a week. We asked why they didn't have a digital one where you could download games. So they said 'why don't you go and do it'.

"We built one, and it was rubbish. The second was better, and we got better at it, and by the time we finished they were taking in £700 a week."

By 2006, when it floated on the London Stock Exchange, the company had 2,500 employees and revenues of $500m. It was sold two years later. He owned 20pc.

Along the way he also established 'The Cloud'. which was Europe's largest WiFi operator. It was sold to Sky in 2011 for £80m.

The next challenge was figuring out what to do next.

"You're 38. You want to set up a business which makes money, but which brings an honesty to what you're trying to do. We also wanted to do something which was a bit more meaningful.

"We looked around at what the problems were out there, and one of the biggest was climate change which we wanted to tackle."

And so in 2009, with his brother Tom, he founded Crowley Carbon and the grand plan to tackle climate change began. It set up above a Spar shop in Delgany, Co Wicklow, before moving to the Powerscourt estate five years ago.

"At the start we went after supermarkets, and we were very good. We told the supermarkets we could reduce their energy consumption by 30pc, and we did. We were as shocked as they were.

"Then we started working with industrial customers. Our first industrial customer was Dawn Meats - we reduced their oil bill on one site by 90pc, and on average by 50pc to 60pc.

"We expanded into the UK around 2010, and into the Middle East in 2012. Now we're all over the world and across 20 counties - Bangalore, Costa Rica, the Middle East and the US."

Clients include Vodafone, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Dawn Meats and Boston Scientific. The industries span from food processors to car manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies, office blocks and factories.

The company has done work on the Centre of Engineering and Manufacturing Excellence in London, and six 80-storey towers, where energy costs fell by €1m each.

"Our team spans guys who worked with the Royal Navy for years and others who operated chillers. A lot of the excitement is learning new things, and I love that part of the business. You could be in a food factory then a place making cars, then the biggest shopping mall in the world or world's biggest building."

In the past, it was people who operated the equipment, but that's rapidly changing.

"One of the things that's enabling this is the digital factory. A car has hundreds of sensors, and there's no-one with a spanner starting it. But in a factory, there's people manually tweaking boilers and chillers.

"Our technology C3 (Carbon Control Centre) is putting sensors all over a factory and those sensors are deciding the most efficient way to run a plant. That hasn't happened before.

"We finished a project recently and 15 people didn't do that job any more. To be honest, there is a negative jobs story there. But there is a huge shortage of guys who know how to run stuff - we hire people to tell us what to tell the sensors to do. Remember too, it's said that if or when driverless cars take off, 5pc of the world's people will become unemployed."

He says that selling the message about the merits of efficiency is easier now.

"There's no mystery, it's just engineering, Customers might say they have no money. We say we have €400m, and it's the right thing to do, it's just irresponsible not to do it. I get frustrated. Look how cool it is - you're going to your client and saying: 'You haven't spent money, you've reduced bills by 35pc and you're going to be off-grid'.

"The excuse is you need to have the government to subsidise it. You don't. There's nothing we need new to happen. It's not all in the future. All of a sudden it's real."

A particular bugbear of Crowley's is the lack of ambition on efficiency in the public sector. Under EU rules, we must reduce energy consumption by 33pc by 2020. We're half-way there with less than three years to go.

"Crowley Carbon doesn't do government work. Our sales people aren't allowed to bid for contracts anywhere in the world, so we're not looking for the business," he says.

"But it's a disgrace that the public sector isn't doing it. Hopefully with the commitments we have made to the world in Paris, we will now get onto it.

"A €2bn investment would help massively on the 2020 target and would avoid a massive amount of fines. The truth is the money is there, and the process of doing efficiency projects in Government will create a sea of employment because plumbers, electricians and others have to do this work.

"The problem is there hasn't been the political will to do it. But it's all good news. It's money."

Among his priorities is the Centre for Climate Change, a foundation he established in 2015, and the Cool Planet Experience which opens in Powerscourt early next year.

An interactive visitor attraction, it aims to illustrate the extent of the climate change challenge and demonstrate some of the solutions. The centre is tied into universities and supported by corporate sponsors. The Sunday Independent and INM are media sponsors.

"We felt that if people knew how serious the problem is, and how easy it is to do something about it, they would do something about it," he says.

"The first stage is to educate every child between six and 18 years for free, to educate them on the challenge and how easy and fun and profitable it will be to fix it."

The foundation partners include the NTR Foundation, Calor, Vodafone and Crowley Carbon. It will cost around €3m to put in place, with Crowley Carbon putting in around €1m.

"People might say: 'It's easy for Crowley, he made money and can do the do-gooder stuff'. But we lose sleep about where money is coming from for the foundation. We're putting a big chunk of our profits into this. We're putting our money where our mouth is. We have a mission."

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