Getting ahead of the curve on energy efficiency

Quite a few years ago, my young daughter (she’s now a mother herself – that’s how long ago) said those words to me as I was going to give a course to energy champions.

Now, we’ll have to forgive her youthful inaccuracy as the planet will technically ‘survive’ even if surface conditions become those of Venus. It is life (I suppose I should add ‘as we know it’) that may be destroyed in the next few years if we don’t take drastic action.

But it is very true that the unfashionable profession of energy efficiency management will play an essential part if we are, for example, to keep global warming below 2C. Much focus has been on the replacement of fossil fuel technologies with ones less harmful to the global carbon dioxide concentrations, which will be essential in the long-term.

The sooner we start to decrease carbon emissions, the less long-term damage will occur; the less habitat change will affect flora and fauna (and thereby extinctions), and the less we will have to take painful steps in the future.

Energy efficiency measures are often not constrained by long timescales and can therefore deliver savings almost immediately. Therefore, climate scientists who are aware that one of the problems of climate change relates to the long residence time of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and realise that, even if we achieve the draconian reductions required by 2050 by international agreement, all may be to no avail if we allow excess emissions now – much of which will still be in the atmosphere then.

So, the immediacy of change matters and, as I have said, energy efficiency can be the quickest at that.

We should also consider the cost-effectiveness of using energy efficiency as a major weapon against climate change. Measures can often be free or at least very cheap. For example, what does it cost to turn off (and, better, unplug so any primary transformers are isolated and their standing losses can be saved) unused appliances? A more ‘industrial’ example relates to compressed air. A pinhole leak in a typical eight-bar system absorbs around a kW of power. Fixing that when it is located may take an engineer a few minutes with a wrench and possibly a little jointing compound. No, if we were to generate an additional kW (because we were too lazy to apply the simply energy efficiency measure, perhaps) then the additional plant (even at scale) would cost at least £1000 from ‘conventional’ technology and probably two or three times that of clean technologies (wind, solar, biomass etc). So, which is the more cost-effective method? Reducing wastage by making practical energy efficiency measures HAS to be more efficient than spending money of renewable generation and wasting lots of it.

There is another consideration: we are aware that we are going to have to do massive amounts of work on our energy infrastructure to reflect the move from large centralised plant to more distributed generation (see my blog post titled ‘Do we need an Electricity Grid?’). This will affect our electricity grid, our natural gas mains (especially if we turn them over to carrying hydrogen as the H21 project suggests) and any district heating/cooling systems and we will need to carefully consider sizes. If we take energy efficiency measures on our building stock first – and considerable potential exists – we will be able to size the modified supply systems to reflect a lower level of usage and consequently make significant savings on the massive bill that we face. As it happens, correct sizing is also likely to mean better control and even more savings as a result.

It is important to realise that new buildings (built to high energy performance certificate ratings, ‘Excellent’ BREAAM and the latest building regulations) incorporating advanced energy saving measures will only be small proportion of the building stock by 2050, by when we have agreed to make the bulk of our energy saving measures. We will therefore need to reduce the consumption of existing buildings – and retrofitting things like solar panels can only do so much – we will need ‘conventional’ energy efficiency measures.

When the EU (we’re still in at the moment, I believe) published its 20-20-20 plan for reduction of carbon emissions by 2020, it decided that 20% energy savings from improved energy efficiency were possible. It would appear that we, being ‘behind the curve’ perhaps, need to exert more effort in that less fashionable aspect of reducing carbon emissions if we are to cost effectively comply with things like the Kyoto and Paris Agreements and prevent the temperature of the planet rising to a point that irreversible harm is done to ‘Spaceship Earth’, and we need strong leadership in that direction.

Andy Clarke at edie’s Energy Management Conference

Andy Clarke is chairing edie’s Energy Management Conference on 28 February.

The sixth annual edie Energy Management Conference will feature a range of expert speakers evaluating the ever-changing energy policy landscape; assessing the power of integrating people and products; and analysing the potential business benefits of emerging solutions such as energy storage and demand response.

Find out more about the Conference and register to attend here.

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