Downing LLP Energy & Infrastructure is undertaking carbon life cycle assessments to understand and reduce emissions throughout the asset lifecycle

22 November 2020

As a signatory to the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI)*, Downing takes its environmental, social and governance (ESG) responsibilities very seriously. Continuing with our responsible investor approach and by applying the same rigorous standards to our project investments, the Energy & Infrastructure team has established an in-house Carbon Life Cycle Assessment (CLCA) methodology. This provides a detailed understanding of the carbon emissions and carbon offsetting capability of different investments, as well as ways to reduce these emissions across our supply chain.

Over the last decade, the Energy & Infrastructure team has invested in over 140 projects encompassing UK renewable energy assets and similar ventures overseas. Downing was an early-mover in what are now well-established technologies, such as commercial rooftop solar and large-scale battery storage. Our asset management portfolio generates around 194 GWh of renewable energy annually, enough to power around 66,800 homes and save around 85,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent (CO2eq.) emissions.

It is these emissions that a CLCA exercise is designed to ascertain and measure; the CO2eq. emissions impact of either a product or technology from the beginning of its life through to the end. 

Downing intends to use CLCAs to develop a detailed understanding of the CO2eq output of different types of investments. As we perform growing numbers of CLCAs, we are increasingly using this information to inform our decision making, for example in our choice of suppliers for goods and services relating to our portfolio of investments.

As the process matures and suppliers and manufacturers also become more informed and aware of such requirements, we can make better decisions that save carbon emissions, based on real world data. Such analysis often goes hand in hand with financial savings, for example in minimising transportation costs, or realising additional investor value, by extending the life of a project.

Downing’s CLCA assessment is split into three stages, with the emissions at each stage calculated according to their proportionate impact throughout the entire lifecycle:

1. The Raw Material Sourcing, Manufacturing, Transport & Construction stage can account for up to 90% (dependent on technology) of the overall carbon emissions output over the lifecycle of the project, depending on a variety of factors including where the materials are physically sourced and the product manufactured, assembled and finally installed.

2. During the Asset Operations stage renewable energy assets can more than offset their overall carbon emissions, compensating for emissions made elsewhere in its life cycle. There is often however a small negative emissions impact at this stage, with activities such as transporting service engineers to maintain the asset, or the import of power which may not be 100% renewable energy, potentially contributing. These are areas that can be optimised to reduce emissions during this stage.

3. Decommissioning & Disposal represents the end-of-life stage for an installation, along with the opportunity to reduce emissions by reusing or recycling materials used, alongside their ‘embedded’ carbon.

Using this methodology allows us to identify the carbon impact at each stage of a project or investment as well as the ways we can reduce it as a standardised metric by exploring cleaner alternatives. This might include for instance, reducing the steps in the supply chain, introducing an electric vehicle maintenance fleet, or looking at opportunities to extend the life of an otherwise functional asset if for example its lease is coming to an end.

As an example - we applied our CLCA to a portfolio of c.10MW of onshore wind turbines that have been operating for over two decades. The methodology allowed us to compare their relative emissions to those of a conventional gas-fired power station, showing that over a 25-year lifespan total life cycle emissions were around just 2% of the gas plant, at around 5,000 tonnes compared to 220,000 tonnes of CO2eq. With an opportunity now arising to extend the life of the project by several years and delay decommissioning, there are significant additional carbon savings that can be made, which a CLCA can help quantify and therefore support the decision-making process.

Such decisions help to not only contribute to national and international efforts to minimise the need for fossils fuels and achieve a net-zero economy, but can also help generate additional, sustainable returns for investors over the longer term.

By taking action at every stage of the carbon lifecycle, Downing applies an ESG mindset that our team and investors can be proud of. We hope that this will, in turn, attract those who truly care about building a cleaner future to want to work with us too.