Hoodies, bedroom-backdrops, cats and crying children: Remote consulting in the new world

There is no doubt we now live in a different world, and at a few months in, you might forgive us for thinking we are beginning to understand what the new normal might look like.

As a consultancy, we were fortunate that a lot of existing work could continue to happen remotely during the lockdown period. However, with the ability to visit site gone, there was certainly some anxiety about existing long-term projects and new projects going forward. There was some initial hesitancy and some projects were put on hold, but we were pleasantly surprised by the number of new projects that went ahead.

One such project was the pre-feasibility investigation of renewable process heat technologies at a large beef processing site in Australia. This project was one of ten projects in a second round of the Renewable Energy for Process Heat: Opportunity Study, which is being undertaken by A2EP (Australian Alliance for Energy Productivity), with support from Climate KIC Australia, Sustainability Victoria, and the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment. The program is being part-funded by ARENA (Australian Renewable Energy Agency), through its Advancing Renewables program. The study investigated renewable process heat technologies or electric process heat technologies that could be paired with renewable electricity generation. This project was funded as a pre-feasibility study through the A2EP program, and may proceed to the second stage of the program, which would involve providing detailed feasibility testing of specific opportunities.

When the project was at the stage of having contracts signed, travel restrictions were beginning to come into play, so it would have been easy (and probably quite reasonable) to pull the pin or put the project on hold, especially as we didn’t know when our New Zealand based project team would be able to cross the ditch to get onsite. Thankfully, both A2EP and the beef processor were happy to continue with the study.

With site access challenging, even for the local staff, we relied heavily on the existing knowledge of the project team to fill any information gaps. This meant we spent a lot of time in Microsoft Teams meetings, where the project team shared not only project-relevant knowledge, but also bedroom/garage/kitchen backdrops, unkempt facial hair, and an informal dress code including hoodies, trackpants, and possibly some covert pyjamas. There may have even been cameo appearances from children and cats, or maybe that was on one of the many other video calls throughout quarantine!

With the wealth of local knowledge on the client side of the team, and DETA’s depth of experience in the meat industry, we were able to pull together the information required to build a mass and energy balance model for the site, which provided the basis for analysis. The feasibility testing used a splash of Pinch Analysis to determine where the proposed technologies might best fit within the existing or future process heat systems, which informed subsequent scenario modelling.

The result was a report which provided the beef processor and A2EP with a good understanding of how the proposed technologies could, should (or should not) be integrated with site process heat systems. One of the key findings of the study was that the site had un-tapped heat recovery opportunities, which showed more attractive economics and emissions savings than the alternative technologies being investigated. The study also showed that once economic heat recovery opportunities have been implemented, the remaining fossil fuel driven process heat could be met with a combination of heat pump technologies and the use of biogas, at reasonably attractive project economics. While this project was well within core service offering for DETA, there were still valuable lessons learned:

  • Taking a whole-site approach to investigations is key to successful outcomes – This project reaffirmed DETA’s preference for taking a whole-site approach to thermal systems investigations, as investigating the proposed technology applications in isolation may have led to heat recovery opportunities being missed. Under-utilising heat recovery could result in a higher CapEx/OpEx transition to low carbon than was necessary.
  • We should revise our previous assumptions around site visits – The project went smoothly despite DETA not visiting site, and by not traveling, approximately 600 kg CO2-e emissions were avoided. A portion of the relatively small budget was also freed up, allowing for more rigorous modelling and analysis.

So we learnt that for many projects we can work effectively with tools we largely already had, but what more could we use to reduce site visits, without reducing our ability to extract all the information we need? One of our dairy processing customers was recently using a drone for some roof work, and one of our partners, Genesis Energy, have been using Virtual Reality for infrastructure inspections (https://www.reseller.co.nz/article/680195/covid-crisis-spurs-genesis-energy-try-again-augmented-reality/). What else could we do we do? Please let us know your great ideas!