This article continues our series on climate change and the next generation electric energy system. Throughout this series, we’ve noted that changes must be made to the current system, from energy production to consumption, to address the threat climate change poses to the planet and human health.
Last week we discussed electrification as one potential climate solution. Another solution is increased energy efficiency. Often, consumers think of energy efficiency in terms of appliances: refrigerators, freezers, washers, and dryers to name a few. However, in a much broader sense, the term energy efficiency relates to the efficiency in which electric energy is used throughout the entire system, from energy generation and transmission to end user consumption and by-product usage.
History shows that changes can be made when problems are understood: when air quality was recognized to be dangerous to human health, Congress passed the Clean Air Act; when lack of fuel efficiency standards in cars was recognized as an issue, Congress passed the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, which established average fuel economy standards for new automobiles. These changes were met with resistance at first, but were ultimately embraced for the betterment of human and planetary health.
In the same way, increased energy efficiency standards must be embraced to address climate change. Let’s take a closer look at what this means.
An Energy Efficient System
Today’s energy production and transmission system has made progress towards higher efficiency, but more can be done to reduce energy losses throughout the system.
Burning coal was one of the first forms of electric energy production; the most efficient coal fired power plants produced one KWH for every 10,000 British thermal units (BTUs) of heat released by burning coal. (A BTU is a unit of heat equal to about 0.293 watts.)
Engineers recognized that efficiency within coal-powered electric energy production facilities could be improved. To create a system that could produce more electric energy by burning less fuel, engineers developed gas fired, combined cycle power plants. These production facilities produce one KWH for every 5,600 BTUs of heat released, creating an almost a 100% increase in efficiency.
Today, electric energy production must become even more efficient and environmentally sound. The first steps are to replace coal and gas fired energy production facilities with wind turbine generators and solar panels. An energy efficient system may also include energy storage technology located in strategic locations, such as near the end user, so that maximum stored energy can be available when needed. More innovations will be necessary to create a resilient system in the face of climate change.
Energy Efficiency in Residences and Buildings
Energy efficient appliances in buildings are only the first step; whole building energy efficiency includes updated HVAC systems, improvements to insulation and roofing standards, and Combined Heat and Power (CHP) concepts throughout the building, in addition to better appliances.
Today, an average residence consumes 1,000 KWH per month. As electric energy demand is increased due to full electrification, the average residence will consume 2,500 KWH per month unless the efficiency within the entire building is increased. Once this change is made, the amount of electric energy consumed in existing businesses and residences will decrease below today’s averages for all-electric homes.
For example, when a 100 watt incandescent light bulb is replaced with a 13 watt LED light bulb, energy consumption is reduced by more than 80%. When an old refrigerator is replaced with an Energy Star refrigerator, energy consumption is reduced by more than 20%.
In the next few years, whole house HVAC systems could be replaced with zone controlled HVAC systems. Zonal control means that different spaces within the house would be heated or cooled separately, rather than being governed by a single temperature gauge. For example, an upper story that warms faster than a basement would be on its own cooling and heating system.
Additionally, CHP concepts could apply to water heaters, among other devices. A traditional 10,000 BTU electric water heater could be converted to a heat recovery water heater system, in which excess heat from other appliances, such as the refrigerator, is captured and used to heat the water. A CHP system like this can cut the energy draw of the water heater in half.
Create an Energy Efficiency Governing Body
To oversee the rollout of energy efficiency across the U.S., electric utility executives, as well as state and federal regulators, should support the establishment of an energy efficiency institute. This governing body should have the goal of increasing energy efficiency and reducing the consumption of nonrenewable energy by 10% every year, beginning in 2023.
Some well-known energy efficiency standards are available through the LEED building certification from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). This optional program allows buildings to reduce their contribution to climate change and promote sustainable material production, as well as improve human health within the building and environmental health in the surrounding area.
Though this is an important step on the journey to energy efficiency and climate action, its optional nature means standards cannot be universally enforced. Additionally, because of associated fees, only builders seeking to present themselves as eco-friendly will pursue the certification.
In contrast, energy efficiency standards must be established and universally required by the energy efficiency institute. All new construction must be built to be energy efficient. Updates to achieve reasonably maximized energy efficiency in older buildings must also be required.
Act Now: Implement Energy Efficiency Standards
By creating an efficient electric energy system, increasing efficiency in buildings and residences, and establishing a governing body for energy efficiency standards, energy efficiency goals can be achieved. With these changes, in conjunction with many others, we can mitigate the worst impacts of climate change if we act now.
Coming up next in this series, we’ll explore distributed energy generation and storage. Not only are these climate solutions; they also increase the resilience and reliability of the electric energy grid.
This article was written in collaboration with Prescient's Lead Editor Alyssa Sleva-Horine.