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Jo Southernwood, Senior Energy Research Engineer and PI at Tyndall, shares her path to Research Excellence

Posted on: 10 Feb 2021

Jo Southernwood, Senior Energy Research Engineer and PI at Tyndall, shares her path to Research Excellence

Jo Southernwood is a Senior Energy Research Engineer and PI at Tyndall, specialising in sustainability research.

An innate passion for the environment, an unwavering entrepreneurial mind-set and a persistent curiosity for discovery have empowered Jo to accumulate deep expertise that addresses critical, global and societal challenges in the area of sustainable energy research. Join us today as Jo shares her path to Research Excellence.

I originally graduated from Cambridge University with an MEng in Chemical Engineering, but in my final year at university I studied a few elected modules on sustainability and energy efficiency, and realised that I was much more passionate about the environment than I was about Chemical Engineering.

 A year after I graduated, I enrolled on a Knowledge Transfer Partnership with London South Bank University and began an MSc in Sustainability for SMEs by Learning Contract. This meant that I worked full time as the Sustainable Development Manager for an independent breakfast cereal manufacturer and everything I did at work counted towards my Masters. It was my responsibility to reduce waste and minimise energy consumption at the factory and I learned a massive amount, not just about energy efficiency and recycling systems, but about how to build a business case for change, how SMEs make decisions, and how to talk to people at different levels in the business about my ideas.

After getting my MSc, I moved on to an energy consultancy in London where I quickly progressed to team leader and delivered climate change strategies for public sector bodies and businesses, became involved in my first European funded project and carried out feasibility studies for renewable and low carbon technologies.

In 2010, I took the plunge and started my own business, Carbon Minded Ltd, freelancing as an independent energy consultant and project manager. I specialised in energy management and energy efficiency projects and advised organisations on how to transform themselves into sustainable businesses. The problem with consultancy though is that you come across the same problems again and again, and eventually I became bored of delivering the same kinds of work. I needed a new challenge and felt that by pursuing research, where everything is new and you don’t already know the answer to the questions being asked, would be the right path for me.

Three and a half years ago, I joined the IERC, originally on a short term contract to deliver a particular project relating to energy auditing software. What most attracted me to the role was the fact that IERC projects sit at the intersection between academia and industry, taking ideas that work in theory or at small scale and turning them into real-world solutions to the challenges faced by the energy sector.  My project management skills and experience of running European funded projects were put to good use on the NOVICE project. Then I won funding for the SPEEDIER project which was really just the beginning and opened new doors and opportunities for my research career

Developing Deep Expertise through Entrepreneurship

The most important steps for me in developing deep expertise was working in industry and running my own business. When you start your own company, you’re on your own. There is no one else to ask for help, no one you can delegate to, which means you are responsible for everything from winning new projects and delivering high quality work to chasing overdue invoices and fixing the printer. Clients expect you to have the answers, and if you don’t know, you have to go and find out - somehow. That forces you to learn how to do everything, to be resourceful, to be resilient when things don’t go to plan, and to work hard to achieve successes yet make it appear seamless to clients. It means I can turn my hand to anything. It also means that I understand how things work in industry and what are the key factors that will make or break a project from the perspective of an industry partner.

My career transition into research has been somewhat unconventional so I don’t really have any major publications, or patents just yet. I have come from industry where publishing papers is less important than being able to write a clear technical report or deliver an engaging presentation.

Environmental Impact through Energy Efficiency

One of my most impactful projects since joining the IERC was NOVICE (New buildings energy renovation business models incorporating dual energy services). This was a three-year project, co-funded by the European commission, which aims to develop and demonstrate a new business model that combines both energy efficiency and demand response services. Our mission was to develop an innovative business model for the renovation of buildings by combining energy efficiency with demand response services in a single offering.

Building renovation rates in Europe need to double in the coming years in order to achieve the energy efficiency targets set by the European Commission. At the same time, the energy sector must transition to a flexible network of prosumers who are able to change their demand profiles in response to the intermittent nature of renewable energy generation. Many assets that are commonly installed or upgraded during energy efficiency retrofit projects (such as HVAC systems, CHP and RES installations, BEMS and heat pumps) can also be used to provide flexibility services to the electricity grid. Taking advantage of revenues from both energy efficiency and demand response flexibility in one integrated service increases the value that these assets can deliver to the building owner and improve the return on investment (ROI) of energy efficiency renovation projects.

NOVICE proved that this approach can reduce the payback period of energy retrofit projects by up to 16%. The project also demonstrated that it is in the best interests of both the ESCO and the Aggregator to work together during this transition, even though at first glance they appear to have conflicting interests. This improvement in ROI transforms projects that are economically marginal into projects that are viable and will contribute to increasing building renovation rates in Europe as the business model becomes more widely adopted.

Collaborative Leadership spurring Innovation and Research Excellence

Research Excellence and innovation happens when you have the right team with the right skills working together to solve a problem, drawing on each other’s strengths, instead of competing for the glory. My approach to leading research is to build collaborations, encourage open dialogue and take a flexible approach to problem solving, whilst at all times insisting on high quality and rigour. I’m particularly proud to say that people seem to like working with me and appreciate my leadership style. The feedback below came from one of the NOVICE project partners.

“The NOVICE project has experienced lots of delays and a few disappointments, but it has never appeared that you are downbeat about it and you have always maintained optimism and been flexible in ways we approach deliverables, outputs and solutions. This is great leadership. You have also created a positive and collaborative atmosphere amongst the partners. The positives are most noticeable when compared with how other project coordinators collaborate.”