Beginning to take conservation seriously, society is shocked by the data on energy waste. Nowhere is this truer than in the way we heat and cool dwellings.
For generations, back to electrification, our knowledge of home energy use was masked by dial thermostats that helped us to be comfortable but hid most of the cost. In recent years, programmable thermostats, conservation-minded but hard for most of us to use, have begun to replace the simple dial.
What this “comfort” thermostat has hidden from us is that buildings account for 40% of our energy use and HVAC (heating, cooling and ventilation) 56% of that, that the leaks in most buildings make their HVAC work harder, that HVAC systems themselves are energy hogs, and that most are badly installed or maintained, to the extent that duct leaks alone make them run on average 20% less efficiently in our dwellings than they do in manufacturer's tests.
Part II of a two-part series on the development of electric energy storage. Part I addressed the storage we need. Here, we look at the technologies and the political challenges they face.
There are now four classes of electric storage technology products — mechanical, magnetic, thermal and electrochemical — but only one sub-class is deployed in a more than minimal way.
Typifying mechanical storage is the pumping of water uphill and its later release to drive a turbine. Superconductors store energy in magnetic fields. Thermal storage uses heat. Electrochemical storage uses reactions in devices like batteries and fuel cells to store and release energy.
As the first article in this series argued, storage is an essential component of a low-carbon economy, but it is mostly not ready for commercialization. The following snapshots focus on the technology with the largest current application, mechanical storage, and the technology with the most near-term promise, electrochemical storage.
Part I of a two-part series on the development of electric energy storage, starting with the storage we need and continuing Part II on Aug. 31 with a look at the technologies and the political challenges they face.
Unlike our information system with its local hard drives and remote data centers, our electric grid has virtually no storage.
At our peak energy-using hours, or when the weather calls for indoor warming or cooling, the grid must generate more power in order to meet more demand. It does this by turning on more capacity — “peaker plants,” which cost significantly more to run than bulk power plants.
Similarly, about 15% of the energy in the grid is always kept in reserve to ensure power performance when a grid flow needs balancing. The reserve is very rarely used and so, as it can't be stored, it is usually wasted. Yet its business and its emissions costs must be paid.
This huge waste has always been accepted by utilities. Running peaker plants or just excess of bulk power has been arguably cheaper and certainly less risky than investments in experimental storage — or in other kinds of efficiency.
With little policy constraint on energy production or use, there's been little incentive for reform. But this is beginning to change, driven by forecasts of rising demand, by pressures (CO2-based and otherwise) on supply, and by the first shifts of a centrally-organized and hierarchical system toward a more distributed model.
Because today's energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies lack connective infrastructure, they provide only first steps toward climate change mitigation.
Quantitatively they only make dents. This applies to building efficiency methods, such as improved lighting and insulation, and transportation efficiency methods such as higher fuel economy standards. The same for onshore wind and concentrated solar thermal, the first (after hydro) competitively-priced renewable technologies. In almost all cases, they lack integration with long distance or even local distribution systems to reach their markets.
These limitations are the main reasons a “smart” electrical grid, empowered by $4.5 billion in federal stimulus funds, is starting to graduate from R&D into products and services.
It's not an easy transition, though, as it surfaces large technology challenges as well as the positions of competing business sectors, technologies, and interests, and the less Machiavellian problems of industries that are working together for the first time. Splashing around now in one pool are the electrical utility, energy feedstock, information technology, building design and management, transportation, and electrical devices and appliances sectors.
With so much taxpayer money involved, President Obama's energy team is mandating up-front standards to ensure that what is built by these disparate forces works and is efficient.
The initial results illustrate the technology and business challenges, but also, a culture of innovation and the experience in business and industrial reinventions of the IT sector.
The International Energy Agency states in its 2008 World Energy Outlook that global energy demand will likely increase 45% by 2030. Developing countries led by China and India will account for 97% of the related rise in carbon dioxide emissions, and by 2030, they will supply 67% of the energy-related CO2 that enters the atmosphere.
Using 450 atmospheric parts per million (ppm) of CO2 as the ceiling for effective climate change mitigation, the Energy Outlook concludes:
[Developed] countries alone cannot put the world onto a 450-ppm trajectory, even if they were to reduce their emissions to zero.
In post-Kyoto negotiations, developed and developing countries have generally split on what the world should do about this fact. While there is a consensus that the CO2 footprint of economic growth must be greatly reduced, the sides differ on how the costs of this makeover should be divided.