Thousands, make that millions of people, including some smart people and congress people, when talking solutions for our energy efficiency low-carbon future are continuously babbling about “technology” that will save us all. Bill Gates says we need Miracles. Whadahyou talking about man? The White House announces $130 million for a new building energy efficiency effort – “a multi-agency initiative to spur regional economic growth while making buildings more energy efficient.” It will be “an Energy Innovation Hub focused on developing new technologies to improve the design of energy-efficient building systems”. Get ready for cold fusion to reemerge.
Let me tell you somethin’, we don’t need to throw bazillions of dollars into developing these new magic elixirs – not now anyway. We need the public and organizations to take action with the “miracles” that are already on the shelf at your local home improvement center or mechanical and electrical contractors’ warehouse. You saw last week’s rant on people at Boulder lead to the energy efficiency trough but refusing to drink. This is the problem. Why develop a bunch of other junk that people won’t buy?
I’ve been in the energy efficiency market for 14 years and there has really been very little progress in energy efficient products or technologies for commercial buildings during this period. Why? In large part because there are physical and scientific barriers. Boilers and furnaces were available in the 90% plus efficiency then as they are now. Electric motors run in the mid 90% efficiency range. There is this theoretical barrier of 100% efficiency that Mr. Gates may think is just a nuisance. Maybe it’s just that nobody has thought about it hard enough. Chillers, lighting, variable frequency drives, compact fluorescent lighting, energy recovery – there have been no major breakthroughs with this stuff in 14 years. Prices for some things have come down a lot and quality has improved. The thing is, these technologies have become very cost effective as prices have dropped and energy costs risen. Just use them already!
Other innovative system designs such as displacement ventilation and chilled beam cooling systems have been refined but I don’t think they were born in the past 14 years. But even an “efficient” system can waste energy like congress can. See previous posts “Dermal Beauty, Ugly to the Bone”, “The More You Spend, The More You Save”, and “LEED and the Not Happenin’ Energy Savings”.
Rather than developing miracles that many think are just sitting there waiting to be discovered, let’s use cost-effective technologies we have right now. Compact fluorescent bulbs use 70% less electricity than incandescent, but they still only take up 30% of unit sales with the rest being incandescent in the screw-in category. And this is in CA where programs have been running forever. Beyond that, you would be amazed at how many variable frequency drives are spinning away at or near 60 Hz (that’s full speed) because of some bonehead control setpoint; heating and cooling systems fighting one another like a car traveling down the road with the brakes applied; many pieces of large “efficient” equipment like huge air compressors online blowing off compressed air (wasting it) or otherwise running at full capacity when only a tiny fraction is needed; it’s dogs and cats living together – mass hysteria!
McKinsey determined that the U.S. can cost effectively reduce energy consumption by 23% compared to BAU (business as usual – I like that one). To become zero carbon, the first thing that needs to happen is minimize consumption through energy efficiency with existing technologies, system design, and controls optimization. Once this happens, money that used to fly out the window to pay energy bills piles up so fast that renewable sources can be purchased, even though it may not be cost effective. I’ve been through the exercise using a college campus as an example. The perverse thing is that the more money an entity is wasting on energy, the easier it is to become carbon neutral. How can this be? There is a huge cash flow going to pay energy bills. Much of that can first be cost effectively captured through energy savings. Since more waste is eliminated, more cash piles up and renewable sources can be purchased sooner as the last leg to carbon neutral. Of course you don’t want to be wasting energy in the first place, but if you are….
Why isn’t this happening? There are enough barriers and discussion to fill a rack of encyclopedias but I’ve had enough for this week.
written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP