Any conversation in Malaysia about business sustainability inevitably includes a heated discussion around air conditioning.
Heated because, as the country’s average temperature edges upwards, so does demand for cooling units that ironically only add to the problem. Between 2015 and 2019, the number manufactured there doubled to just under five million, with the still-growing market now worth around US$728 million.
A lot more offices and homes might now be at a more pleasant temperature, but the amount of carbon pumped out to achieve it has left politicians and business leaders distinctly hot under the collar as they scramble to meet their obligations to the Paris Agreement and reduce emissions by 45 per cent by 2030.
“Every organisation looking to cut their carbon footprint has to consider its air-conditioning systems,” says Ahmad Nizam Hassan, Managing Director of the country’s leading provider of district cooling systems (DCS) and solar farm engineering, procurement, construction and commissioning, TNB Engineering Corporation (TNEC). “They are responsible for around 60 or 70 per cent of the total energy used by a building. So if you can make them more sustainable, it makes a huge difference.”
TNEC specialises in large-scale solar projects that produce enough energy to cool a whole district. Not surprisingly, its order book is bulging as more businesses realise the benefits of switching to renewables to harness the all-year-round sunshine.
In the past
The company began life in 1993 as the first subsidiary of Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB) and is now the most experienced owner and operator of district cooling systems in Malaysia.
Ahmad joined TNB in 1996 as an engineer and quickly learned the business and its operations.
“TNB is a regulated business and the main focus is to keep electricity available to the nation at all times and keep the lights on when they are supposed to be on,” he says. “So it is somewhat different from a normal business.”
I was suddenly exposed to a mindset of profit and loss, revenue streams, the need to reduce costs and looking at a company as a whole.
It was only when he was transferred to a different subsidiary, TNB Energy Services (TNBES), that he started to gain a more commercial perspective.
“I was suddenly exposed to a mindset of profit and loss, revenue streams, the need to reduce costs and looking at a company as a whole,” Ahmad says. “It was very different from the utility mindset I’d had before. I was still doing engineering, but with a business perspective.
“In terms of my career, it was a life-changing experience. I matured very quickly!”
Ahmad spent 14 years at TNBES, working his way up to become Chief Technical Officer before taking over as Managing Director of TNEC in 2020.
When, a year later, the prime minister declared that the nation would be carbon neutral by 2050, and would no longer sanction new coal-fired power plants, Ahmad, a long-term advocate for clean energy, could see the potential.
“All our customers have ESG commitments, so when I look at where we are, I get really excited,” he says. “Whether we realised it or not, we’ve been providing it for the last 20 years. And now we see excellent prospects for introducing DCS to our projects. If the City of London can do it, then why not here?”
All our customers have ESG commitments, so when I look at where we are, I get really excited.
The UK capital signed a £400 million (US$489.4 million) deal in 2020 to buy all the electricity produced on a solar farm in a small Dorset village. Ahmad wants similar schemes in Malaysia.
“These days, banks don’t want to be associated with you unless you have ESG initiatives, so that’s how we can help our customers. DCS should be an important part of the solution; centralised utilities serving whole areas,” he says.
Ahmad’s passion to push boundaries and do more for the environment is palpable.
“A good leader must always show gratitude and have a positive outlook in order to motivate people. I set myself goals and then do everything in my power to reach them and strive for more. That’s what gets me up every morning.”
“When you have unprecedented situations like a pandemic, you learn who your real friends are. True friends will stay with you in difficult situations,” says Ahmad. “We’re lucky to have vendors, suppliers and contractors that stayed with us so we were able to support each other.
“We know the great value they bring us and, if we have another challenging situation, I know we can trust them to make sure our projects stay intact. You remember the people that help you, and I’m sure they’ll also remember that we supported them.”