Interview with Katie Mills | Schneider Electric

The Head of Sustainable Development & Innovation for the UK and Ireland, at Schneider Electric has a lot to say when it comes to how controlled environments can take responsibility for their carbon footprint

Energy efficiency and carbon footprint are buzzwords that anyone from almost any industry will be familiar with. An expert in these words and their application in industry is Katie Mills, Head of Sustainable Development & Innovation for the UK and Ireland, at Schneider Electric. Schneider is a company that uses many avenues to help industries make the most of their energy and resources. Whether that be by engineering or software, the company's end goal is to provide a win-win for the business and the planet.

As the sustainability lead for a company that provides energy and automation digital solutions for efficiency and sustainability, Mills has a lot of responsibility sitting on her shoulders. "I am responsible for development of our sustainability strategy and innovation partnerships in the UK&I," Mills explains. As part of this, she has to work to leverage Schneider's energy efficiency, carbon reduction and sustainability knowledge.

Prior to this role, Mills was the Head of Innovation UK. This involved working with startups to invest and partner with promising technologies. This included the company's "EcoStruxure" solution, which is a wide-ranging IoT-enabled architecture system, for improving efficiency. For cleanrooms and data centres.

On a personal note

Working in such a high stakes business is a huge responsibility, which Mills takes very seriously. "My energy and passion for what I do is what makes me most suited I believe," she says. "It gives me the resiliency to challenge and push people to think differently and do more. I don't like taking no for an answer and prefer to find a way of doing something rather than finding 100 reasons why we shouldn't."

This passion leads Mills to also be on the front foot. "I also think my thirst for learning is crucial. The sectors I work in face some of the biggest challenges affecting society today and solutions are changing all the time," she explains. "Being open to learning about new points of view and new technologies is crucial to stay ahead of the curve."

Being open to learning is crucial to stay ahead of the curve

But no one starts out with complete confidence in their abilities. "As a younger woman in a relatively senior position, in a male-dominated sector, imposter syndrome at times has been an issue for me. As I've become more confident in myself, I realise now that no one has all the answers and that's ok."

In overcoming this mentality, Mills sings the praises of a reliable mentor. "Find mentors both within and outside of your organisation," she enthuses. "They will be the people that support you and lift you up within your career. Everyone should have mentors!"

Speaking on her career as a whole, Mills thinks there is no single turning point, the ups and the downs as a whole make her career. "I don't believe there was one turning point but many that have led me to my career to date. Being open to every opportunity that has been given to me and constantly wanting to learn in every job I have had, has given me the skillsets I have needed to take to every job."

Sustainability practices

As someone who is on both sides of the conversation when facilities are designed, Mills talks about what can be done to improve the relationship with hi-tech clients. "As with any relationship, you need to be clear what both sides get out of it. Make sure you have understood both sides expectations and more importantly timelines when collaborating." She says. "These areas are usually where SME's and larger organisations struggle due to lack of mutual benefit and difference in expectations."

An interesting growing business opportunity for controlled environment providers is the data centre sector. Though it does not have as highly stringent standards as say a semiconductor wafer manufacturer, there is a whole host of processes that are needed to ensure quality control of the equipment. Mills is keen to talk about this sector and how the centres can be improved for efficiency and sustainability.

Mills lays out the interesting concept of scopes 1-3 carbon emission sources. "Data centre operators have been predominantly focused on reducing Scope 1 carbon emissions that are generated directly from data centre day-to-day operations, and Scope 2 greenhouse gases result from the production of electricity that is purchased and consumed," she explains. "Yet, even more efficiencies can be realised by targeting Scope 3 emissions (also referred to as value chain emissions) which are generated from partners and suppliers. This is a worthy pursuit as Scope 3 emissions often exceed Scopes 1 and 2 emissions combined."

Further explaining Scope 3's practical applications, Mills says: Data centre operators who are committed to responding to their CEO's sustainability goals can help shrink carbon emissions by working closely with their suppliers. These efforts have the added benefits of revealing supply chain cost savings, providing margin advantage, and increasing adoption.

An example of a project Mills worked on was for Newcastle City Council. The council transformed its data centre operations, consolidating its main IT systems into a single data hall, with upgraded power and cooling infrastructure and new management software.

Unsurprisingly, Mills highly encourages thinking about the entire lifecycle footprint of the area. "Just as data centre operators set new benchmarks in efficiency inside the data centre they must also strategise how to manage their Scope 3 emissions to become more sustainable. It is all part of a sustainability ecosystem that needs to be assessed and addressed with a wider lens."

Mills also brings up the dropping costs of solar technology, increase in regulations in carbon emissions, and massive adoption of EV's particularly in Europe where it's now the fastest-growing market. All of these trends have complex effects on the controlled environment sector. "The UK's planned phased out of natural gas boilers are driving new innovation in how we heat buildings, and manage electricity in buildings," Mills says. "Software will be a huge source of innovation that will change how we use electricity, enabling utilities to leverage their customers' assets to balance the grid and add more renewables, and enable buildings to generate, sell and trade electricity- transforming what was a passive system to a proactive one."

SMEs often struggle due to a difference in expectations

It seems, like HVAC control, entire buildings will soon have software to manage their energy outputs and targets to hit.

But there is a worrying flip side to this positive trend: The global semiconductor and chip shortage has grown drastically, especially amidst the Coronavirus pandemic. This has begun to impact the production of solar power, clean energy technologies and equipment. This is where the controlled industry can help provide for an industry that in turn will help them. The limiting factor seems to be the manufacturing space and whether or not this will change is up for debate.

The COVID factor

Not to miss the elephant in the room. Mills talks about the opportunity the pandemic has provided to humanity. "The overall shift in mentality that happened during COVID-19 shone a spotlight on climate change and society's carbon footprint," she reflects. "Everyone had a chance to slow down and really rethink how we are impacting the planet. As a result of remote work, The New York Times reported that nearly every country showed a sharp decline in traffic, around 70%; the decrease in carbon emissions was so significant that we could finally see the Himalayan blue skies for the first time in 25 years."

This seismic shift in daily habits is sure to have aftershocks throughout business in the years to come. "Consumers are now rethinking how they want to commute and transport to and from work daily, and it is this shift in mindset on energy waste and climate change that ultimately is driving substantial increased interest and attention to CleanTech."

Another point that Mills makes sure not to miss is the interest in cleaner technologies. "Finally investors are more attracted to the space because the technology and business models have shown maturation in recent years, proving investors can do well while doing good," she says.

The CleanTech bubble

An interesting sustainability concept that Mills brings up is the "CleanTech bubble". The CleanTech bubble is the concept that the $6 trillion energy industry, one of the biggest industries in the world, is facing a huge investment in renewable energy technologies from major pensions, institutional investors and venture capital firms.

"With the high number of public commitments to green technologies, big government spending is being allocated to both startups and clean energy projects," Mills explains. "The bubble refers to how the valuations for clean energy and technologies combatting the effects of climate change are skyrocketing, causing numbers to increase and escalate at record-breaking speeds."

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The CleanTech bubble concept is central to Schneider and Mills' plan for the future. "This massive attention and investment in CleanTech are helping to make what is now niche solutions mainstream- combating climate change, improving legislation and spurring further innovation."

But also thinking of the future, there is a possibility that the bubble may "pop". "We're not necessarily in a bubble economy quite yet, because the megatrend is highly positive," Mills says. "Solar energy, clean power, electric vehicles, energy management, all of these have a bright and promising future. The bubble however has not popped yet due to how much money can be made and disruption to be held in the next 15–20 years, putting the spotlight for the coming years on CleanTech and sustainability."

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