‘Efficienology’ chief on reinventing Sharjah’s energy landscape

SEWA’s Eng Afra Alowais, talks to Fatima de la Cerna about the different measures the Sharjah government has adopted to encourage building owners to retrofit their properties

Eng Afra Alowais, chief efficienology officer, SEWA.
Eng Afra Alowais, chief efficienology officer, SEWA.
SEWA's retrofit programme targets Sharjahs top 100 energy consumers.
SEWA's retrofit programme targets Sharjahs top 100 energy consumers.

When it comes to its retrofit programme, the Sharjah Electricity and Water Authority (SEWA) is foregoing the stick in favour of the carrot as it aims to encourage participation through incentives rather than regulations.

“It is very easy to add a regulation in Sharjah, but it is not our methodology,” says Eng Afra Alowais, SEWA’s chief ‘efficienology’ officer and one of the featured speakers at the RetrofitTech Dubai Summit & Awards 2018.

Explaining that the authority does not want building owners to feel compelled to retrofit their properties for fear of being penalised, she continues: “We don’t have any regulation to force customers to participate in the programme, but we are trying to show them what SEWA can do and offer, and how they will benefit if they join.”

According to Alowais, SEWA launched its retrofit programme at the end of last year, with the introduction of its energy service company (ESCO) certification initiative. Describing the authority’s ESCO registration process as “simple and easy”, she tells Construction Week that SEWA does not require ESCOs to have a Sharjah trade licence, which means that companies operating outside the emirate can register.

“If [ESCOs] have a trade licence in other emirates, like Abu Dhabi or Dubai, they can immediately work in Sharjah,” she says. “And international companies are also welcome. We opened the [registration] to both [local] and international companies because we want to increase the programme’s competitiveness and find innovative solutions for our customers.”

At the moment, SEWA has three registered ESCOs – Taka Solutions, Smart4power, and Enova – and around 10 more are finalising their applications. 

Alowais explains that the registration process starts with SEWA qualifying the interested ESCO. This is followed by field certification: “We go with the ESCOs into the field, so we can check their practical work, like if they are doing energy audits, we need to see how they do them. We need to check their engineers – their qualifications and skills – because at the end of the day, they will be SEWA’s ambassadors.

“They will [work with] customers on behalf of SEWA, so we need to make sure that they do their best.”

SEWA has identified the top 100 energy consumers in the emirate, Alowais reveals, adding that these will be the focus of the government’s retrofit initiative.

“We [treat] them as our VIPs because they are the customers that use most of our energy and network, so we need to take care of them, to help them reduce their consumption and increase their efficiency,” she says. “By doing that, we will be able to use the energy we save from their buildings to meet the demands of other customers.”

Helping customers to increase the efficiency of their buildings would support SEWA’s goal of achieving 30% energy savings in Sharjah by 2020 – a target that the emirate has been moving towards since 2015.  “[This target] cannot be compared to those of other emirates because by 30%, we mean the whole power sector – generation, transmission, and distribution – and not just the supply or demand side,” explains Alowais, emphasising that achieving the target is especially important in light of the growing number of megaprojects being developed in Sharjah.

“This is one of the challenges of SEWA,” she says. “We need to consider all these new projects that come suddenly, [which is] why we are looking to increase the efficiency of our highest consumers, so we will have the extra energy supply for the projects that are being built. There needs to be a balance between supply and demand.”

When asked whether SEWA would consider alternative energy sources, Alowais brings up the variability of renewables, saying: “Not in the short-term, because we are focusing on efficiency, to make the network ready and more stable, before we can inject renewables.”

Alowais goes on to note that around 40% of SEWA’s top 100 consumers are from the industrial sector, while 33% are from the government and 26% are commercial entities.

Pointing out that the industrial sector has a “lot of potential” for energy savings, she adds that retrofit activities involving industrial companies and buildings have specific requirements that ESCOs without experience in the sector struggle to fulfil.

“This is one of the challenges of the ESCO market,” she says. “You need an experienced ESCO because [retrofitting] can affect the company’s processes and production line. You don’t want to affect profits, so you need to find a flexible ESCO with experience in the industrial sector.”

This awareness of the varying retrofit needs of different sectors has prompted SEWA to offer free consultancy services, including energy audits.

According to Alowais, by offering free energy audits, SEWA is able to use numbers to convince customers that they stand to benefit from retrofitting their properties, which she describes as being more effective than simply detailing what the retrofit programme is all about.

“We ask the customers to allow us to carry out an energy audit on their buildings, and then we discuss with them their savings potential,” she explains. “When customers see the figures and numbers, they will be open and ready to listen. At that stage, they will collaborate with you to find the best way to achieve [the savings].

“You can’t just introduce the programme without showing them some numbers. If you go to a customer saying we can save them 30% in [their building’s energy use], they will ask you how you knew that. But if you audit the building first and show them exactly how much they can save, they will be convinced to listen to you.”

In addition to energy audits, SEWA matches retrofit projects with registered ESCOs for free, says Alowais, adding that the scheme benefits all parties: “The ESCO can get work through SEWA, and the customer can get the best offer, also through SEWA.”

The authority’s energy-efficiency efforts are not just directed towards the retrofitting of existing buildings, however. SEWA has started selling products it deems efficient, such as light-emitting diode lighting systems, and has extended its free consultancy services to new construction.

“When customers come to us, they ask for electricity and water services,” Alowais says. “What SEWA does is try to find the best product for each customer. We will recommend the best brands and help them find out how they can make their buildings more efficient, even before construction.

“Instead of developing the building and then wondering how to reduce its consumption, it is better to start from the beginning.”

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