Leaner and Greener: How I halved my business energy bill by going sustainable

Bev Toogood, co-founder of sustainable retail firm Almost Off Grid, gives us her advice on how to slash your carbon emissions and with it, your overheads.

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Record-high inflation rates have wreaked enough havoc on SME bank accounts this year. But with the change to the price cap coming in October, experts are predicting energy bills could hit more than £3,000 by winter.

Whether it’s due to the rising cost of bills, or an escalating awareness of the climate emergency, UK firms are seeking where possible to move away from oil and gas and begin looking for eco-friendly alternatives.

But, how can your firm go greener while working to a small business budget? And how much money can you actually save by doing so?

Startups sat down with Bev Toogood, owner of sustainable-business Almost Off Grid, to hear more about her process of implementing green technologies, and get her advice on the big and small carbon-cutting policies that SMEs can implement.

Here comes the sun

Twenty years ago, Bev and her husband Andy would probably have been given the label of ‘eco-warriors’. The pair have always engaged in a subsistence lifestyle by growing their own vegetables, and keeping bees and chickens.

Nine years ago, they began extending these approaches to their business strategy by installing solar panels onto Almost Off Grid’s headquarters – which was also the roof of the family home.

Becoming more sustainable fit in with the “home-brewing, crafty message” that Almost Off Grid promotes. The company sells kits complete with the ingredients and equipment for do-it-yourself dining – including wine, cheese, and cider.

However, speaking over Zoom from the family table, Toogood tells me that solar panels had always been a “fantasy” of hers.

“I was always engaged with that whole idea of creating your own energy,” she explains, “but the cost was huge back then.”

Mead kit Almost off Grid

Almost Off Grid's home-brew mead kit

After inheriting some money in 2013, the couple decided to do something practical with it, and settled on having solar panels fitted and installed “because, hilariously, we thought bills were expensive then”, Toogood scoffs.

Over the subsequent nine years, the panels have more than paid for themselves. Businesses installing solar panels today will find that timeline even shorter, as advances in solar technology have increased the efficiency of new panels.

It took us a couple of months of horrific energy bills before we realised that we were doing it all wrong.

Other, unforeseeable perks have also emerged. Four years later, the solar panels once again came in handy when the couple acquired another business asset in the form of an electric car.

“The solar energy that we’re generating from the panels power the car,” says Toogood, “so we can deliver locally on solar energy. We try to pick up our packaging orders [in the car] as well, because that's a more sustainable way of doing it.”

Still, as Toogood clarifies, the main driving force behind the change was in fact financial, not ideological.

“People say to me now ‘gosh, you're so committed to the sustainable thing’”, she recounts. “Well, we are now, but [in] the beginning it was an opportunity to reduce the running costs of the property.”

Cutting monthly bills by hundreds

That energy costs are rising won’t be news to any small business owner. What might come as a surprise, however, is the significant bill reductions that sustainable measures can generate.

Having purchased sizable assets including solar panels and a solar battery, how much has Toogood saved so far?

“Bear in mind we run computers, printers, the car, and a home,” Toogood reminds Startups, “but our bill last month was £56 – and that’s when the prices had gone up dramatically.”

“Last year, our typical monthly bill was around £220. [Going green] has reduced our bills by anything between 50-75%, depending on what time of year it is,” she reveals.

There are caveats, of course. While solar technology is constantly advancing, it's still the case that residential panels need daylight to produce energy. The darker winter months therefore won't bring as much in savings – although still enough to make them a better choice than non-renewable sources.

Certainly, cost also cannot be ignored. The couple recently fitted a heat pump in the house to eliminate their reliance on gas – the price of installation was a hefty £14,000.

“The cost was phenomenal,” acknowledges Toogood. “But we didn’t pay for it.”

By some savvy investigating, the Toogoods heard about a trial being conducted by the energy supplier, OVO, into heat pumps and managed to sign themselves up for it. In exchange, OVO regularly analyses the pump’s data to check its efficiency.

“Had we not got on a trial I'm not convinced we would have got the heat pump, because the cost was so huge,” Toogood admits.

“The heat pump is a less obvious decision to have fitted for your business. If you've got a finite amount of cash, solar panels are far more economically viable.”

Is it worth switching supplier before the price cap rise? See our guide to Business Electricity Suppliers and Prices

Making savvy sustainable decisions

Indeed, Toogood is keen to impress that any eco-friendly path will make a difference, regardless of the shape it takes. Changing your entire office infrastructure is not the only way forward.

She points out that Almost Off Grid still relies on Amazon, a company famous for its large carbon footprint, because “we wouldn't still be here if we had not embraced the Amazon concept.”

Our bill last month was £56 - and that’s when the prices had gone up dramatically

Last year, 53% of SMEs invested in sustainable practices. Of those, only 7% said they had found cost to be a barrier.

Partly, that is due to the scale of those initiatives being implemented. Examples of low-cost sustainable solutions include cycling to work, regularly clearing email inboxes to save on power, and using sustainable cleaning products.

Almost Off Grid also uses biodegradable tape and recycles every piece of cardboard or pallet in the Toogoods’ allotment.

Knowing where to turn when turning green

Many entrepreneurs will not need convincing of the benefits of going greener and paying less for energy bills. But there are still hurdles.

In a survey of 1,000 businesses, Startup Loans found that 43% of small business owners do not know where to go to find information on reducing their organisation’s carbon footprint.

This pain point could be having a severe impact on the ability of SMEs to reduce emissions.

During our discussion with Bev Toogood, it’s quickly apparent that one of the most common themes in her tale is external support – particularly given the number of new and confusing technologies the couple needed to master.

“The challenges we encountered were largely tech-related,” Toogod recalls, “because a lot of this technology is new. The heat pump was costing us a fortune to run, to start with, because we didn't understand it.”

“It took us a couple of months of horrific energy bills before we realised that we were doing it all wrong.”

For help, Toogood turned to the Sustainability Basics program, run by Small Business Britain.

Launching again in September of this year, the six-week short course is entirely free and designed to increase awareness about the simple steps businesses can take to become more environmentally-friendly.

“I saw them on Facebook and signed up,” says Toogood. “The good thing is that you learn from other businesses who have done what you’re trying to do.”

Creating sustainable networks

One of those sustainability experts is Ciaran Armstrong, co-founder of Sustainable Pathways. Armstrong tells Startups that change must come through “strongly tied networks and communities” if the UK is to move towards a sustainable way of living and working.

“Small businesses are perfect for this,” Armstrong adds, “because they are often so intertwined with the local community.”

You learn from other businesses who have done what you’re trying to do

As proof of this theory, many of Almost Off Grid’s sustainable investments have been enabled by regionalised government grants and financial assistance programs aimed at SMEs.

For example, 40% of their solar battery – a device which stores excess electricity generated by the panels – was paid for by an organisation called LoCASE (Low Carbon across the South East).

The funding package was part of a government grant that Toogood reports will still be available to businesses until next April.

“I’m contacting every small business I know”, she says, “to tell them to find out if there's anything that can be done for a grant. [Organisations] often just have a pot of money and they need to get rid of it, to put it bluntly.”

Time for a change

It’s easy to look at Almost Off Grid’s story and decide the Toogoods were lucky. After all, they work from home, and have received large discounts on a lot of their green investments.

But, closer examination reveals it’s by the support of funding networks and expert guidance that the company is now benefiting from its early adoption of green technology.

“There's always more to learn,” says Toogood. “[At Almost Off Grid] we have gone from being risk averse, to signing up for any old thing because it's been so successful so far.”

Green technology could be a win-win situation for businesses, and an answer to the twin crises of the climate emergency and cost of living crisis. However, its implementation requires both a steady cash flow and business risk – two areas where SMEs often hesitate.

Still, as Toogood notes, the most common (and incorrect) guidance she received during Almost Off Grid’s green transformation, was to put it off and wait for a better time.

“If you can find a reason and a way to do it now – particularly energy generation and storage – then start,” she counsels.

“Everybody's learning. But there's benefit to all of us, to the environment and to our customers. Don't wait for the perfect time because there’s no such thing.”

What help is available for my business to go green?

  • The Boiler Upgrade Scheme (BUS) is a government initiative. It offers businesses in England and Wales a £5,000 discount on air source heat pumps and a £6,000 discount for ground source heat pumps.To apply, register your interest with MCS-certified heat pump installers via Ofgem. They’ll then provide a quote for the installation and apply for the grant on your behalf.
  • The Workplace Charging Scheme (WCS) is a government grant for electric vehicles that reduces the cost of a new workplace EV charge point by 75% (capped at £500 per socket).Learn more about the application process on the gov.uk website.
  • Local councils often provide energy efficiency funding or sustainable business growth grants. Get in touch to ask about the options available – you will normally need to submit a business case to apply.
  • If your business already generates renewable energy, you can be paid for the electricity produced using the Smart Export Guarantee (SEG) scheme. You’ll need a smart meter installed as SEG payments are calculated using meter readings.Find more guidance about eligibility for the scheme on the Ofgem website.
  • Energy contractor, Solarsense has partnered with a number of local community energy groups to offer paid-for solar panel installation to businesses in the Bath, Bristol or Somerset area. Contact Solarsense for more information.

Helena Young
Helena Young Senior Writer

Helena "Len" Young is from Yorkshire and joined Startups in 2021 from a background in B2B communications. She has also previously written for a popular fintech startup.

Included in her topics of interest and expertise are tax legislation, the levelling up agenda, and organisational software including CRM and project management systems. As well as this, she is a big fan of the films of Peter Jackson.

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