homeneil kirkby meet the ambassadors

Meet the Ambassadors – Five questions with Neil Kirkby - Whole System Thinking

By Neil Kirkby
19 May 2023

MD - SSE Energy Solutions

Meet our SSE Energy Solutions experts

Neil Kirkby Whole System Thinking.JPG
Neil Kirkby - Whole System Thinking

We caught up with Neil Kirkby, SSE Enterprise, Managing Director, who explains his approach to business and why SSE is backing the talent of tomorrow to help power us towards net zero.

What professional and personal experience did you bring to SSE?

One of the jobs I did before coming to SSE was in the police force which I think prepared me very effectively for the rough and tumble of the corporate world. After the police I became a chartered accountant and then progressed into broader general management, becoming CEO of another business called Enterprise – which must have been fate!

Before I came here, I’d been working for Balfour Beatty, so I knew a bit about the energy business and what SSE were about. SSE were in fact my biggest client at the time and one of the key projects we delivered together "Beauly-Denny" was very successful – having been somewhat traumatic to kick off with! When I then got the call to join SSE, I bit their hand off – it was such a fantastic opportunity and I’ve never looked back. I’m lucky to be someone who faces Monday mornings with a smile on their face.

What are the key challenges for business when trying to reach net zero and decarbonise their operations?

The big challenge is unpacking the complexity for businesses. Every company wants to be on the road to net zero but a lot of them simply don’t know where to start. That is where SSE comes in – we can be that trusted partner and help shape their journey from the start by encouraging organisations to look at the challenge of decarbonisation in the round. It’s what we call ‘whole system thinking’ and it means we take the hassle and headache away from the client and set them on their way.

It can also be difficult for companies to keep up with the rapid pace of technology change. There is always the temptation to delay making decisions until newer green technologies come along; but that way you risk getting left behind. At SSE we have been at the heart of renewable generation for decades and I think that stands us in good stead in knowing how to facilitate net zero for our clients.

What would also help businesses would be a more supportive framework from government. You only have to look at the investment from the US Government in the Inflation Reduction Act to see how serious they are about scaling up green technology. Europe cannot get left behind. We need to make sure companies like SSE, who want to invest £25bn in low carbon technology in the next seven years, have the right conditions to do so. Otherwise, we won’t get to net zero fast enough.

Another challenge for companies would be speed of deployment given grid constraints and the difficulty of getting planning consents. We need to be agile so companies that want to invest in low carbon technology are not held back. That applies to our partnerships with the public sector too.

What can energy companies do to support the journey to net zero?

Two things stand out for me on this one: investment and social mobility. SSE rightly invests more than it makes in profit which means it can create over 1,000 green jobs a year and be a leading low carbon enabler. But it’s about so much more than the bottom line and keeping shareholders happy. We must support the ‘just transition’ so no-one gets left behind as we phase out fossil fuels.

I’m passionate about taking a chance on the people we bring into SSE so we look beyond what qualifications they may or may not possess and back their potential. That way we’ll get the diversity of talent we need to make net zero a reality. We need to make sure we ‘level up’ as well as ‘green up.’ I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with a number of metropolitan mayors including Andy Burnham and Tracey Brabin and you can tell that bringing jobs to their communities and giving people a chance is what is critical to them also.

What technology is missing in the next big advance to support the UK decarbonisation targets?

Well, it’s a great time to be an innovator in the energy sector! We all know the exam question; which is quite simply how are we going to save the planet? There are so many technologies that companies like SSE are looking at which can give us some answers, but I’d call out a few things:

First up decarbonising heat is mission critical to the UK’s pathway to net zero. At SSE we run several heat network schemes across the UK and we’re constantly working with partners like National Grid to see how we can make better use of energy from waste heat and even utilising geothermal energy with another project in Stoke. Beyond that I’d highlight hydrogen, long duration storage and sophisticated demand side management as further examples of new technology which will have a material impact on getting to net zero. We’ve also been developing our pioneering Enhance trading platform for some of our generation assets. Digital will unlock so much for us to get to net zero.

Can you explain our Whole System Thinking approach and how it benefits our clients?

Our whole system approach means we can be the trusted partner and one stop shop of clients looking to decarbonise their portfolios. We invest in, build and control localised, flexible energy assets to accelerate a path to net zero and create a more resilient energy system for the long-term. Energy markets are complicated, so we find a whole system approach streamlines what is required and takes the sting out of decarbonisation for companies. Our rationale also encourages local authorities to think big picture because that is that only way we’re going to successfully decarbonise the places we live and work in. It sounds complicated but it is the opposite. We bring simplicity.

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