What’s Greener: Energy Efficiency or Renewable Energy?

Recently in the online industry journal Hydrogen Fuel News, industry observer Angie Bergenson reported on research from National Renewable Energy Laboratory which states that improving energy efficiency, not searching out new methods of energy production, might be a better approach to take.

Noting that improving efficiency isn’t anywhere near as expensive as developing new power systems, Bergenson wrote that while “finding new ways to produce power, primarily through the adoption and support of renewable energy systems, is one way to approach the productivity issue, this has proven quite expensive.”

In fact, NREL researchers suggest that America can double energy production by 2030, “primarily through the adoption of energy efficiency policies,” Bergenson says, as well as contribute jobs to the economy. 

Energy Efficiency Is Just… Efficient

Last month at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., NREL Director Dan Arvizu, who headed up a blue-ribbon panel of 20 energy experts studying the issue, stood with members of the Alliance to Save Energy (ASE) Commission on National Energy Efficiency Policy to say that “doubling energy productivity could create a million new jobs, while saving the average household $1,000 a year and reducing carbon-dioxide emissions by one-third.”

As Science Daily reported, Arvizu said such “ambitious goals” require investments in “energy efficiency concepts and technologies throughout the economy, modernizing our energy infrastructure, reforming regulatory measures to promote efficiency, and educating consumers and business leaders on ways to reduce energy waste.”

Reusing waste to produce energy is growing in popularity among businesses as more  and more realize how profitable it can be, not to mention good for the environment.

Energy Efficiency Reducing Costs In The Real World

It’s tempting for some to simply dismiss “energy efficiency” as an around-the-edges strategy, something that sounds nice to talk about but which doesn’t quite have the heft of fracking, converting to natural gas or other more meaty issues. But NREL’s track record in real world projects is impressive. According to Science Daily, NREL researchers helped New Orleans officials either completely rebuild or renovate a total of 78 schools after Hurricane Katrina, and according to Science Daily, achieved average energy savings of 30 percent:

“Among cost-saving measures, the blueprints called for pretreatment of humid air rather than overcooling the entire airflow; aligning the new schools on an east-west axis, with large, efficient, south-facing windows; and smart monitors to assure that only the lights that are needed are turned on.”

NREL officials estimate that their efforts helped contribute to a potential savings of $75,000 per year, per school. Extrapolating such savings out to new school construction and renovation all across the U.S. and the numbers suddenly get meaningful.

Besides, with the boom in fracking, sinking the time and money required to develop renewable energy sources is looking a bit less attractive to anybody outside government, and they’re not playing with their own money anyway. Independent energy consultant Gail Tverberg says she has “a hard time seeing that intermittent renewables (wind and solar photovoltaics) will play a big role in maintaining grid electricity, because of the stress they place on the grid, and the high cost of needed grid upgrades to handle them.”

Even renewables from waste, such as leftover cooking oil, shouldn’t be seen as a promising source of energy, since Tverberg predicts the supply of waste will shrink as people adopt more efficient lifestyles.

If you want to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, you really don’t want to advocate for ramping up alternative energy usage quite yet. As Tverberg points out, “all renewables depend heavily on our fossil fuel system. For example, it takes fossil fuels to make new wind turbines and solar panels, to maintain the electrical grid, and to repair roads needed for maintaining the grid system. Biofuels depend on our fossil fuel-based agricultural system.”

Bringing It All Back Home

But if reducing fossil fuel usage is your goal, manufacturers can take some steps to improve their own efficiency that will save more energy and pay off a whole lot faster than installing a windmill or a bank of solar panels will. Sustainable Plant has identified five no- or low-cost efficiency strategies manufacturers can use to reduce their usage of fossil-fuel derived energy.

Peak Energy Demand Identification. Peak demand charges “can often equal 30 percent of an industrial organization’s monthly utility bill,” Sustainable Plant says, noting that “peak demand charges are typically calculated over the 15-minute interval when the organization uses the greatest amount of energy in a given billing period.” You can’t really determine what your particular peak demand is by staring at your energy bill, you need to include real-time visibility of energy usage, “including irregular peaks caused by intermittent use of high-voltage mechanical systems, improperly programmed building management systems, or other mechanical system failures.” Manufacturers “can work with vendors to ensure high-energy-demand activity necessary to meet production demands don’t coincide with incidental loads that can be shifted or eliminated.”

Weekend Energy Use. You can try regular production shutdowns for such things as weekends, off shift periods or scheduled maintenance windows for “substantial reductions in energy demands,” after consulting the sort of data and analytics that let you know when and if it’s worthwhile.

Weeknight Setbacks. Consider how much energy you use during off-shift periods. Most manufacturers can find granular energy demand trend information, pointing up “shallow drops in energy demand,” Sustainable Plant says, “which potentially indicate few pieces of equipment shutting down during off periods. Historical demand data can really help here to create “a relative performance benchmark… a key consideration when contemplating an energy efficiency strategy.”

Start-Up Spikes. These happen when voltage jumps when you turn on multiple mechanical systems simultaneously. Sustainable Plant recommends “gradually ramping up mechanical equipment in a staged manner,” to avoid excessive energy charges without changing production output.

Compressed Air Systems. Up to 20 percent of total electrical use in certain industries can come from air compression systems, Sustainable Plant says, adding that “this makes these systems prime targets for energy efficiency measures.”

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