Spotlight on: Mitsubishi Electric

In the latest of his articles homing in on low-carbon movers and shakers, Andrew Gaved visits Martin Fahey, Head of Sustainability at Mitsubishi Electric.

Martin Fahey occupies a rarefied position in the HVAC industry – as Head of Sustainability at manufacturer Mitsubishi Electric, he is someone who is able to present a holistic view of the manufacturer’s contribution to the built environment and the actual environment across the whole spectrum of heating and cooling without, to put it bluntly, having always to come back to flogging particular lines of equipment.

Martin’s role is the result of some very astute thinking from his employer, which recognised early on in the journey to Net Zero – that having people who can talk intelligently about carbon emissions, energy efficiency, Coefficients of Performance, Global Warming Potential and the like, without constantly relating it back to the latest product launch, could create meaningful and helpful discussions up the supply chain. In fact it is fair to say that the company was on the net zero journey while most manufacturers were still puzzling over the routemaps.

Mitsubishi Electric came up with the Green Gateway concept way back in 2007, creating a platform where the manufacturer could talk to architects, developers, public sector organisations and the like about the importance of reducing energy and carbon, without fear or favour – and without anyone feeling the need to brandish a product catalogue.

At the same time, it opened the door to better ways of working, Martin notes:

“It evolved to effectively give us a licence to talk far earlier in the construction process about what the technology can do – rather than being thought about right at the end of the process – and sustainability became a discussion point that developed alongside.”

In turn, Martin Fahey’s 20-year career with the manufacturer, serving a host of different roles – he is the Grant Shapps of HVAC – made him the ideal candidate for effectively becoming effectively a low-carbon ambassador for the industry, taking the message beyond construction to the corridors of government and to the person in the street. As a result, you may equally have seen him gracing a stage at a Party Conference or at a BESA conference or indeed in the corridors of the Glasgow COP 26 talks.

“I think it important to note the willingness of the company to put the time and resources into this kind of activity,” he says, “Certainly at the beginning there weren’t many other manufacturers doing it.”

Given that Mitsubishi Electric is one of a small handful of manufacturers that is active across the full spectrum of heating, cooling, ventilation and controls, he is also well placed to offer a ‘holistic’ view across HVAC, rather than just coming at it from one angle with a single vested interest.

“Let’s stop burning stuff”

It has given him both perspective and purpose: “Let’s be clear, we need to recognise that as a country we are a huge consumer of energy, of which a significant proportion is heat and so when we talk about reducing carbon, we must talk about moving away from fossil fuels – let’s stop burning stuff.”

As a manufacturer that isn’t burdened by a legacy of boiler manufacture, Mitsubishi Electric is, not surprisingly, a fervent supporter of the transition to an electric economy, via heat pumps, controls and the connectedness that goes with it.

But the degree of cultural change that is going to be required to achieve this is not lost on Martin, particularly because he began his career as a refrigeration apprentice: “When I think back to my apprenticeship in 1985, I was working on air source heat pumps, but they were noisy things and large and cumbersome. If you’d told me then that this type of equipment would become the future of heating, I wouldn’t have believed you. But the technology has improved so much in size and performance and noise, it is unrecognisable to those early machines now – in fact I defy you to hear the new models when they are running.”

But he is at pains to point out that it isn’t just the ambition of the heat pump sector driving the acceleration of electrification – it has been  endorsed by the government’s own advisers: “The Climate Change Committee has recognised the part that heat pumps can play in carbon reduction if they are scaled up in volume – which is why it has recommended to the government to accelerate the transition.”

But as the industry knows all too well, such recommendations can be ignored if they are politically inconvenient. Indeed, this interview took place a week after the Prime Minister applied a screeching brake to several targets aimed at Net Zero goals, and the actions of Mr Sunak weigh heavily in the ether during the conversation. Martin is at pains not to appear too ‘political’ but the frustration around the current situation is clear:  “These political decisions have been made in the face of some pretty clear evidence on the pace of climate change and the pace of change that is needed…The facts are out there, aren’t they? For a manufacturer, uncertainty is the death knell for future investment, so the worst thing is to have changes in the direction of policy.”

But he is surprised at quite the way things have pivoted in recent months: “When we were at the COP 26 meetings in Glasgow, we took delegates to our Ecodan heat pump factory in Livingstone and we were heartened by the tone of the response at the time. What has changed since then? Arguably there have been more regular climate extremes. So it all points towards a short-term political decision”

As Mitsubishi Electric has just celebrated its 100th anniversary, long-term thinking is a prevailing a theme at the manufacturer. “We have a part to play as an employer of 150,000 people as well as an equipment manufacturer,” he stresses, “What will the company look like in the next 100 years?”

Net zero optimism

However, despite the clouds of uncertainty he says he remains an optimist about the journey to Net Zero. For him, what it will take for the UK to move culturally towards heat pumps is a major mobilisation of effort: “If you think back to the 1970s, most home heating was based on coal. To get people to move to cleaner fuels required a huge national effort. But that national effort worked and the UK moved away from coal towards gas. So that’s what we need now. Long-term certainty is what will reassure the consumer, the installers and the manufacturers.”

And Mitsubishi Electric stands ready to ramp up to support the heat pump acceleration he adds: “With the Livingstone factory, we currently are the UK’s largest manufacturer of renewable equipment and we currently export a percentage of that, so we have the capacity to expand for UK needs…”

To play its part in providing assurance, the company is pursuing a parallel policy of technology and training – working to upskill the population of both cooling and heating installers to install and optimise its heat pumps: “We are training around 4,000 engineers a year with our hybrid online and in-person training. It is important to stress that we are not teaching people to be heating engineers but showing them what it means to design to lower flow temperatures – we are conscious that these folk already know a lot. One of our goals is to tell the government that there are a lot of skills already out there that can be mobilised.”

Winning hearts and minds

Martin recognises that the installers and contractors are very much at the sharp end when it comes to winning the hearts and minds of the customers to heat pumps. “The problem is that you need to convince the end user that the performance of a heat pump will be better if you leave it running. which runs counter-factual to everything they have been told for the last 30 or 40 years. We learned early on in the now-15-year journey around heat pumps in the UK that the end user is a vital cog in this transition, so we need to persuade them too. And people will push back if they feel they are being forced to do something.”

He adds that there is apt recent evidence of this in the way that the residents of Whitby rejected the prospect of becoming the first hydrogen village.

He notes also that it is important not to paint heat pump technology as the cure-all for everything. “There are applications such as steel manufacture that will need other solutions, but we believe that the mass solution can be a heat pump – where there is a heat source and a heat sink requirement, the technology in the middle can generally be a heat pump, whatever type that is, from a single air-source unit to a district heating network…For instance, no-one is going to wants 50 individual heat pumps on an apartment block. It is better to do it on a loop as a heat network. The result is a nice balanced lower temperature solution.”

Indeed, the company is finding success with its heat pump solution for the latest generation of heat networks which use lower temperatures, he adds: “A temperature range of 25 to 35 degrees C is a perfect temperature for a heat pump as it gives you lots of potential heat to grab.”

Martin adds that there are a number of interesting projects in the mix that seek to use less conventional heat sources, from rivers to aquifers and lakes, but he emphasises that all heat network opportunities are subject to planning regs, which, because they tend to vary from region to region, will often prove an administrative burden: “What it needs is some sort of government involvement to co-ordinate it all. Let’s remember that that is what was required with the transition to North Sea gas – and the infrastructure was successfully built. Again, I would say it needs the government to instil confidence.”

Refurbishment challenge

Martin believes that the combination of the Future Homes Standard and local planning regulations will see newbuild applications driving heat pump take-up, but he acknowledges that refurbishment will remain the main challenge.

With this in mind, the company has been doing a lot of work recently around refurbishment applications, particularly the subject of ‘stranded assets’ – considering what will happen to buildings if their services are not invested in for the longer term: “That oft-quoted statistic that ‘80 per cent of the buildings that we will have in 2050 are the ones we have now’ is very pertinent,” he says, “So the first thing is simply for buildings to use less energy. It might sound like ‘turkeys voting for Christmas’ for a manufacturer to say this – but if you use less energy, you don’t need to use as much kit.”

To do this, a focus on the fabric is vital, he continues: “We have a lot of older buildings, so we first need to grasp that nettle of insulation, because to run efficiently at lower temperatures, you need a better-insulated envelope. In Scandinavia, their building standards ensure that the heat stays where it should – that’s the sort of thing we need in the UK…We would always say ‘reduce the energy first.’ But let’s not forget that a heat pump can still operate in a leaky building– just as a boiler has always had to.”

The refurbishment focus has seen Mitsubishi Electric working closely with a range of stakeholders including the UK Green Building Council, building engineering body BESA and the Supply Chain Sustainability School. This bears out one of the company’s key missions – taking the debate further up the supply chain:

“As a manufacturer, you too often find yourself at the end of the process, but if you want a truly sustainable solution, you have to collaborate and take the discussion higher up the decision-making chain. The contractor is absolutely vital in this. Too often, any problems that arise get blamed on the kit, when in reality it rarely is. That is why we try to talk with the designers and the architects as much as the engineers.”

Mitsubishi Electric will be looking for precisely that kind of collaborative conversation when it comes to InstallerSHOW next year.

For Martin Fahey, such conversations are driven by both urgency and opportunity:

“I remain an optimist. I believe we will be able to scale up to meet the net zero target, because we must. We are the generation who have been told what the climate challenge is, so what are we going to do about it for the next generation? We need a positive long-term vision so that we can innovate, employ and train…and then the opportunity is vast.”