On a remote archipelago off the coast of Cornwall, a green energy revolution is taking shape. Separated from the English mainland by 45 kilometres of water, the Isles of Scilly were, until recently, in the grip of a fuel poverty crisis. The sparsely populated islands are connected to the UK’s national grid by a single, precarious undersea cable. If the cable breaks, as it did in 2017, the island relies on dirty diesel generators to keep the lights on. Such challenges, together with no mains gas supply, means that electricity use per household is about 50 per cent higher than in Cornwall. But then the solar panels started to arrive…
In 2015, the islands embarked on a groundbreaking experiment to ditch their dependence on dirty energy sources and switch to a state-of-the-art, smart energy solution. An island-wide partnership was established with a bold ambition: to cut electricity bills by 40 per cent, meet 40 per cent of energy demand through renewables and for 40 per cent of vehicles to be low carbon or electric by 2025. The first project in the partnership, which cost £11 million and was partly financed by the European Regional Development Fund, brought together a number of technologies, from solar panels to smart water heaters and smart batteries for homes and businesses in a bid to tackle fuel poverty and cut carbon emissions. The scheme, led by the engineering conglomerate Hitachi, also established a local Community Venture non-profit company and has been a resounding success – and that success now offers a blueprint for other small islands and cities across the world.
“What we look to do is take that kind of project and scale it,” says Ram Ramachander, CDO and CCO, Social Innovation Business EMEA at Hitachi. “If you take the impact we had on reducing energy prices, reducing energy poverty, reducing carbon emissions, how do you scale that into much bigger municipalities in the UK and also globally?” For Ramachander, the success of the project on the Isles of Scilly is a key demonstration of the power of social innovation in action – and how a different way of doing business can have a big, positive impact.
It might sound like another business buzzword, but Ramachander is a keen believer in using social innovation to drive change not just in business, but also in society. At Hitachi, social innovation is made up of three components: economic, environmental and societal. “We’re an engineering conglomerate that owns quite a lot of infrastructure,” says Ramachander. “But we’re also a big digital organisation that aims to bring operational technology and digital technology together to optimise social infrastructure.”
WIRED in conversation with Ram Ramachander
The Isles of Scilly project shows how this expertise can work in practice. Smart technologies and new infrastructure are working together to not only remove dependence on fossil fuels, but also lift people out of fuel poverty and create a more sustainable way of life. Ramachander’s unit within Hitachi is tasked with incubating and launching businesses that have the potential to become billion-dollar success stories – while also building these businesses to have a positive impact on the environment, the economy and society as a whole.
It’s no small task – but Ramachander is energised by the challenge. Another project already underway, dubbed Optimise Prime, is collecting data from commercial electric vehicles in London and the south east of England to better understand the charging infrastructure demands of the future. Working with Ofgem, UK Power Networks, Royal Mail, Centrica, Uber and Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks, Hitachi is designing, building and operating the world’s largest commercial electric vehicle dataset and will have data from up to 3,000 vehicles by the end of the programme.
As more and more vehicles – both commercial and personal – plug into the grid, companies and individuals will need to better understand where chargers need to be located, when vehicles need charging and how the grid can be improved to efficiently and effectively cope with demand. To understand the task ahead, Hitachi is handling a deluge of data to glean insights into potential pain points and opportunities for investment. “One of the targets that we have is potentially saving hundreds of millions in grid investment infrastructure by having a much deeper understanding through data and AI,” says Ramachander.
And it’s not just the financial benefit. As a social innovation project, it also has to deliver on environmental and societal goals too. It’s estimated that an accelerated adoption of commercial electric vehicles in the UK will save 2.7 million tonnes of CO2, equivalent to a full Boeing 747-400 travelling around the world 1,484 times. The flexibility created by a deeper understanding of energy demand and distribution will also potentially free up enough capacity in the network to supply millions of homes with cleaner energy.
These infrastructure projects are, as a result of their gargantuan scale, too big for any one company – or even one country – to solve. In all of its social innovation projects, Hitachi works in partnership with local communities, politicians, small and medium enterprises and startups, amongst others, to decide on the best plan of action. “You need organisations like Hitachi – big infrastructure conglomerates like us who are used to managing these big programmes and driving them forward,” says Ramachander.
“We’re going to invest in them, while bringing in fantastic innovation from startups and from SMEs. We need to interconnect that innovation world with big engineering companies who are good at innovation, but a bit slower than fast, agile startups.” Ramachander’s role is to bring that startup mentality to a big engineering firm – and deliver change that can benefit us all. “We bring that ethos of agility, fail fast, move fast and pivot – all of the fantastic things that great digital innovators are good at – into a big engineering conglomerate,” Ramachander explains.
From clean, smart energy solutions on the Isles of Scilly to data analysis of huge electric vehicle fleets, social innovation is already having a profound impact on how companies do business and how people live their lives. As we prepare to enter a post-pandemic world, such a collaborative approach that focuses on economic, social and environmental good, takes on ever greater significance. “We’re living in highly uncertain times,” says Ramachander. “But I think there’s a huge opportunity for digital technology to have an impact on how society reconfigures itself.”
–Modern life is saturated with data, and technologies are emerging nearly every day – but how can we use these innovations to make a real difference to the world? Hitachi believes that social innovation should underpin everything it does, so it can find ways to tackle the biggest issues we face today. Visit Social-Innovation.Hitachi to learn how Hitachi Social Innovation is Powering Good and helping drive change across the globe.