Innovative clean energy technology to meet net zero goals
Perennial Energy Crops Decision Support System (PEC-DSS) is a partnership between Crops for Energy, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and led by the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI). Its goal is to revolutionise the perennial energy crops industry (PEC) and encourage non-fossil fuel use.
As part of the project, Calvium delivered a proof-of-concept mobile web app that enables farmers, land managers and consultants to investigate the suitability, and profitability, of growing PECs on different land sites.
This project is part of Phase 1 of the Biomass Feedstocks Innovation Programme, which is funded through the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s (BEIS) £1bn Net Zero Innovation Portfolio. The portfolio’s aim is to accelerate the commercialisation of innovative clean energy technologies and processes over the coming decades.
Client Challenge: create a central source of impartial information
Energy crops are low-cost and low-maintenance, such as straw or wood, that are grown purely to produce energy by combustion. To ensure that they are grown in the most efficient and sustainable way, Crops for Energy helps land managers to allocate the most appropriate crop to the most suitable site. To do so involves the analysis of multiple factors, e.g. soil, climate, yield and profit.
This project seeks to ease the burden of the manual process of gathering and evaluating multiple data. The client’s aim is to create a decision support app that a range of people can use, such as:
- farmers and landowners interested in growing biomass crops
- people with existing boilers looking to change from oil and coal to biomass
- those using biomass generators who wish to grow their own crops and/or sell the energy produced
- consultants advising on land use, crop choice and new boilers.
How Calvium met the challenge to build the system
To build a successful system that meets the needs of current and potential clients, it is necessary to have its foundations underpinned by deep user understanding. Speaking with future users is critical. Crops for Energy conducted this research and gathered a wealth of information. The team evaluated the data which enabled them to decide what calculation types people required. At this point, Calvium worked with our client to translate their insights into a set of complex flowcharts and decision trees to predict possible user journeys when using the tool.
Calvium started by exploring how we could design a tool that would accommodate different levels of user knowledge and understanding – whether being used by somebody with no knowledge of energy crops, a farmer growing arable crops, or a consultant in biomass production.
We also had to design the tool in a way that would keep users engaged throughout their interactions. This meant finding an approach to gathering the data needed by the tool to make its calculations, without asking users too many questions. The more a user has to input into a service, the more laborious they find their experience and the less likely it is that they will use that service again. It was also important that users could pause a session and return to it later – in the same state as when they left.
Once users answer relatively few questions, the system gives a report for each section where they can then edit their answers and see how the calculations change; after which the information can be saved as a spreadsheet or PDF.
In terms of the calculations, these are made possible by a large data set which includes the information needed to predict how well some different species of tree and crops should grow across Britain. The underlying calculations currently include:
- species of trees and energy crops – miscanthus and willow
- how well each crop will grow in a local area considering soil type, exposure and land use, identified by a postcode
- how much land is needed for each crop in each location to reach a certain yield
- time until the yield is delivered.
The tool also shares how to start the process, how much it is likely to cost and the likely financial returns when selling all, or a proportion of, the crop back, whether green or dried.
A critical challenge that we met was to ensure that this complex data was visualised in a clear and easily understandable way on the PEC-DSS interface. And so, the PEC-DSS platform was born!
Keys to success
Trust and support: Calvium’s knowledge of the energy crops and biomass sector was limited, which meant that the Crops for Energy team had to share their industry understanding with us and be responsive to the designs as they progressed. Equally, our client had no experience of designing and developing technological systems and drew heavily on Calvium’s expertise to inform their thinking. Therefore, mutuality, openness and trust have made this collaboration really work, and created the conditions for a successful PEC-DSS solution.
Iterate: Naturally, some unforeseen challenges emerged during the early stages of the project. Ensuring an iterative test-and-learn approach helped to solve the majority of these challenges quickly and kept the project moving forward.
Experiment: Whilst the Calvium team are recognised experts in all aspects of software development, working with a new data format and modelling has been difficult at times. However, this is par for the course and rather than concern us, our team enjoys the opportunity to learn and we often hear afterwards “that was really tricky… but fun!”
User research: Knowing your user group is essential when designing a digital tool. If you fail to speak with your intended users before, during and after you develop a solution, how can you possibly know what level of understanding people will have when they come to using the tool, whether there’s too much industry jargon, or not enough hints and advice etc.? This has been solved by testing the tool with farmers and energy consultants at each stage to make sure that there is the right type of information within the platform to support everyone.
Accessible interfaces: Accessibility is not a barrier to innovation but an enabler of action. .
Phase 1 of achieving the PEC-DSS vision is complete and the tool is now being used ‘in the wild’. Planning for its subsequent iterations is well underway which is very exciting. Whatever the future holds for PEC-DSS, we have built the first phase of this innovative clean energy platform to be responsive, meaning that it can be easily changed and updated in line with the evolving needs of users and the business.
Calvium looks forward to seeing how users respond to the PEC-DSS tool over the coming months and, longer-term, how it contributes to the sustainability agenda; moving energy production away from fossil fuels and towards achieving Net Zero. This is a goal that Calvium cares deeply about and an area in which we will continue to innovate and collaborate with our clients.
Please contact us to discuss how the innovative use of digital technologies could benefit your business or organisation: firstname.lastname@example.org / 0117 226 2000