Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Cleantech is a Bunch of Hot Air!

While renewable energy often captures most of the cleantech headlines, if anyone doubts why energy efficiency must play a significant part in the cleantech effort – as significant, if not more so, than the role of renewable energy -- just examine the energy flow graphic developed by McCall and Bassett and reprinted in the June edition of Technology Review.  At least half of U.S. energy consumption goes to nothing more than creation of hot air through waste heat.  And, when one realizes that much of the 13.9% of electricity output from power plants shown in the graphic also ends up as hot air from our computers, lights, etc., the portion of energy consumption going up in hot air is actually greater than 50%. 

Couple this with the following facts… According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), on a worldwide basis renewable energy currently supplies roughly 10% of the energy consumed.   Over the next 25 years the EIA forecasts worldwide energy consumption to grow by more than 50%. They also forecast a 100% increase over that period in the supply of renewable energy, which, in isolation sounds modestly impressive.  But this would equate to less than 15% of all energy being consumed because consumption would have increased 50%.   Worldwide renewable energy production would have to increase upwards of four fold to equal just about 25% of the energy consumption forecasted for 25 years from now.  Meanwhile, with 50% growth in consumption, the other 75%, representing fossil fuel consumption, would still equal more fossil fuel than the world consumes annually today!

Energy efficiency not only saves on total energy consumption today but also is magnified as consumption increases because the additional devices consuming energy will consume less if they are more efficient.  For example, increasing the average efficiency of all vehicles on the road an average of 50% (e.g., from 20 mpg to 30 mpg…not such a high hurdle) would reduce overall U.S. energy consumption by over 9%...that’s 9% of today’s consumption and tomorrow’s increased consumption because all the additional miles forecast to be driven would also be in more fuel efficient vehicles.  To achieve that same impact with renewable energy would require about a 150% increase in U.S. renewable energy production and about a 225% increase to achieve the same offset in 25 years.

I’m not diminishing the role of renewable energy as an important piece of the long-term equation.  Disruptive development of cost effective renewable energy sources will need to be a key piece of the long-term equation for removing our addiction to fossil fuels.  However, energy efficiency often doesn’t receive as much press as renewable energy because it isn’t as sexy.  Yet, energy efficiency provides leverage that renewable energy does not because the benefits automatically scale as consumption increases.  To say it another way, if we can figure out how to clear up some of the hot air, we can have a tremendous impact on fossil fuel consumption! 


Bryan Guido Hassin said...

Agreed. To generate a Watt 4x what it costs to reduce a Watt. Energy efficiency is truly the low hanging fruit before us and it really doesn't take rocket science to address it. Addressing it now lays a solid foundation for better energy sources in the future and better financials for consumers as the price of energy invariably increases.

Edison said...

I am glad to see your article. Very rarely people mentions the real problem of our electric grid: 90% of our electricity generation relies on inefficient steam-power engines. Most of the time, everybody gets hang up with the fuels (coal, petro, gas, nuclear) and disregard the fact these fuels power "steam locomotives" that yield less than 30% energy conversion efficiency (without co-generation).
Electricity is the most efficient technology to transport and convert energy. We should use it wisely.
In order to fix this system, from a technical standpoint, real-time end-use electricity consumption data - i.e., close the system feedback loop - gives visibility into what is really going on.
In the mean time we could do simple things as banning electricity consumption for direct heat: for instance, electric stoves use 3 BTUs of steam-powered engine fuel energy to produce 1 BTU of useful heat.
Thank you,

Mike Guilfoyle said...

Agree - the possibility of innovation always seems sweeter than the improving what's always there, reality aside.

I'm quite intrigued by the potential implications on where capital investment will land. In my opinion, the positioning battle has just begun:

David Goldman said...

While I appreciate the catchy headline - those of us in the RE or cleantech industry should realize that many people just scan headlines without reading the whole post. In this case, the opposite effect of the author's intention will come across.

Interesting content, poorly chosen headline.

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