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Climate Action Programme case study: SS Great Britain

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The SS Great Britain Trust cares for the world’s first great ocean liner, two museums, a research centre, wedding venue and conference facility. The Trust have declared a climate emergency and committed to become carbon neutral in their operations by 2030. In this case Nicola Grahamslaw, Ship's Conservation Engineerstudy Nicola Grahamslaw, the Ship’s Conservation Engineer, outlines the steps they have taken so far to reduce their carbon emissions and some pointers for others wanting to embark on this journey.

At the SS Great Britain Trust, we’re conserving the world’s first iron ship by keeping the air around Brunel’s fragile original hull as dry as the Arizona desert to prevent rust. Our unique conservation system accounts for most of our scope 1 and 2 emissions, so we’ve been really focussed on identifying actions we can take with the biggest possible impact to tackle those first.

Gaining a thorough understanding

Although many museums use air conditioning to keep fragile objects in controlled environments to stop them degrading, our system needs to maintain more challenging conditions than most. Our two bespoke and custom-built dehumidifiers were installed in 2005 and create a layer of air around the ship at 20% relative humidity – that’s as dry as the Arizona Desert.

The individual components of our system were being well maintained but my role, created in 2018, allows us to focus on the “bigger picture”. By using real operating data to gain a deeper understanding of how the system works and how the different components interact, we were able to identify where we can make efficiency savings. We discovered that new humidity sensor technology could make our controls more accurate, so we applied for funding to upgrade and now have new sensors that give good data on every part of the ship, meaning we could write new code for the controls to save energy.

ss Great Britain dry dock dehumidifier fans refit

Photo by Adam Gasson / Munters

We now have a lot of useful data that we can easily access and analyse to help identify where further efficiencies can be made. This information has also allowed us to ask our suppliers and maintenance contractors much more detailed questions and have more meaningful conversations. Our suppliers then started to come to us with ideas and we’ve been able to come to mutually beneficial arrangements, for example, we received a subsidy on a more energy efficient upgrade in exchange for support with a case study video. This upgrade uses 25% less electricity.

The extra level of detailed information we’ve gathered has also meant we were able to present a proposal to the West of England Combined Authority for a green business grant to part-fund the installation of a heat recovery system. A year later the data shows our gas consumption has gone down by at least 20% as a result, with the potential for even bigger savings in the future.

Doing what we can

One of the biggest challenges is having so many competing priorities. We are a charity and, like many organisations that rely on visitors, we’ve been impacted by the pandemic. The work we’ve done so far has provided energy bill savings as well as reducing CO2 emissions. We’re now embarking on a feasibility study to see if we could use heat pumps instead of gas, but this would rely on the decarbonisation of the National Grid and a change in pricing as currently electricity is much more expensive.

It’s also a challenge to find enough resource and time. We have a smaller team working on this than we’d like but we’re doing what we can. We’ve just been doing one thing at a time, but they all add up and we now have this programme of work that has reduced our energy consumption significantly.

Next steps

SS Great BritainThere are a few technical challenges we still need to overcome but the plan is to approach these one at a time, by breaking the problem down in this way our intended outcome is to find a path towards not needing any fossil fuels at all for our systems.

So far, we’ve been most focussed on where we can make the biggest impact, but we are also looking at how to tackle some of our scope 3 emissions. For example, by engaging with our catering partner and bringing in a sustainable procurement policy. Our biggest scope 3 challenge is that for many, the best way to reach us is by car. There are some aspects of this that we don’t have direct control over, but we do encourage both staff and visitors to walk, cycle or use public transport, and are advocating for better public transport access to our site as part of our upcoming Albion dockyard development project.

Top tips

  • Try to find a balance between doing the easy or obvious things straight away, while at the same time really getting to know your organisation and emissions to identify actions that will make the biggest long-term difference.
  • There is no substitute for getting stuck in to get to know what needs doing. You can get caught up in analysing data instead of taking action, but there are some things I didn’t see were possible until after we got started. If it seems difficult, just take it one step at a time and you will then start to see and understand the steps that need to follow.
  • Talk to the people you work with. Talk to your colleagues, your suppliers, your contractors about their ideas for how to make your organisation greener. The more we ask, the more the supply chain will realise it is what people want.
  • Talk to people facing similar challenges. At times it has been difficult, and this work can feel lonely especially if your colleagues are working on other priorities. I’ve been drawing on relationships with external people to keep the momentum. The Climate Leaders Group is great for that, it’s so nice and helpful to be in a room with people working on the same things.
  • Take the time to look back and see how far you have come. When working in climate, there can be so much bad news so it’s good to reflect on progress too. It’s incredible to think that what we are doing now we didn’t even know was possible a year ago.

SS Great Britain are a member of Bristol Green Capital Partnership’s Climate Leaders Group. Find out more about SS Great Britain’s environmental journey on their website and take a look at their sustainability commitments. Also check out Nicola’s Twitter thread on decarbonising the ship’s conservation system.

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