Looking into the near future, I see low energy prices. As of today, energy prices are remarkably low in fact. They have dropped so much that companies, whose sole business model is setting an example of how sustainability is achievable, are losing money at a rapid pace thus making the outlook for the Green Industry quite bleak.
What is the Green Industry you ask? It was a term coined by the United States Green Building Council to certify buildings that are built to perform at optimal levels both in terms of construction and energy consumption. This plays directly into carbon reduction from decreased emissions. These types of projects are referred to as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or LEED. There is often a premium that is paid for a building to obtain a LEED certification, which is then subject to maintaining the building certification status with follow up commissioning to verify that the building performance hasn’t lagged from the original design. The premium for this service can be in the range of five figures with little guarantee of a return on investment.
Energy Star is another certification that functions on a slightly different level focusing solely on building performance based on energy consumption with a heavy emphasis on mechanical engineering and project savings. Both of LEED and Energy Star certifications are useful in their own ways, but often times include relatively new concepts that may not be perceived as safe investments.
The Green Industry relies on sustainable construction practices and clean energy technologies for overall success. More often than not, the Green Industry at its core is met with serious adversity. This adversity hinders the advancement of an entire industry that fundamentally wants to help people consume less and save more. The clean energy tech that needs to be incorporated for these projects to make sense is not usually an easy pitch to investors for a number of reasons.
Take solar power or wind for example. I like solar power because it’s a very practical and abundant resource. I believe there is a great market in wind generation also, but the fact remains that the performance of these technologies is sporadic.
Solar power is great during peak hours of electrical demand, typically in the afternoon, but occupancy during those hours can be very low. Another difficulty is when clouds come over head. This can immediately effect solar generation having a tremendous impact on the output. It would make sense to cover high rise buildings with solar panels to decrease heat gain, while improving building performance. The problem there is roof space in the city is often to small for solar to make sense.
Wind power meets barriers because of the nature of the technology. It’s difficult to deploy on a small scale because of local municipalities and the hindrance of neighboring views. Not to mention the first cost. One important question concerning wind power is when it’s most useful? From a business perspective, during times of high electrical demand to reduce the load on the grid and reap the rewards of off-peak electrical costs. Sounds great in theory, but the highest peak demand is during the afternoon hours of summer months when wind blows the least.
Energy Storage seems to be the holy grail of clean energy. Without out it, the industry continues to sputter. Energy storage could solve most of clean energy’s problems yet it’s almost impossible to get a CEO to sign off on a multi-million dollar project that won’t pay for itself.
Historically, and I’m talking within the past ten years, lithium is the go to resource to create batteries for clean energy. However interesting and useful lithium may seem, it also has major drawbacks including availability of raw material – there is a finite amount in the world, lifecycle, possible environmental hazards, weight, safety hazards in regard to building codes, and mostly first cost. Lithium batteries are a very expensive solution to fixing clean energy’s drawbacks. The more I research energy storage the more it makes sense, but if people are charging thousands of dollars per kilowatt then the market will never take it seriously.
Sodium Ion (salt water) batteries are promising. They’ve only been on the market for a few years, but their price points are a fraction of lithium. They are also lighter, have a decent warranty, and can store over 6 hours of useful energy.
If programs like demand response begin to spread then energy storage will make total sense. That way even if clean energy resources aren’t available, business owners could charge the batteries during off peak hours, to reduce grid demand during “events”.
Events are a term used by Demand Response companies to describe a time of peak usage where they need to cut consumption in order to reduce the strain on the grid. Demand Response companies offer investment opportunities for customers who are willing to shed loads during events. There are different tiers of Demand Response a customer can enter with a provider, but having energy storage available would reduce the chances of losing power to a valuable part of their building when they may need it most.
Clean energy fundamentalists won’t admit it, but natural gas is an ideal transitional fuel to take us to the next level. Looking at it from “a big four” perspective, you have: Nuclear, Coal, Foreign Oil, and Natural Gas. No one wants fallout from Nuclear, not to mention how the natural life of the waste outlives the containers. Mercury from Coal, and runoff from the mines are highly toxic. Wars for oil and a global economy that rely on the performance of such a volatile resource only leads to tragedy accompanied by the spread of fear. Then you have natural gas. Fracking is not ideal in many ways, but one could argue that natural gas is by far the lesser of the four evils. Its emissions are a fraction of the alternate fuels. It’s abundant in the US. We could adapt every vehicle to it, and natural gas is useful as a power source.
Utilizing natural gas for cogeneration is a great application and a nice way to transition into a decentralized approach to our energy infrastructure. If Homeland Security is worried about domestic threats to our power plants or transmission systems, taking a micro grid approach to the future of energy could be greatly beneficial in many ways. People who opt to install Cogen systems for their businesses can burn natural gas to create on-site electricity for their buildings plus reclaim the exhaust energy for heat, hot water or even cooling (trigeneration). A simple cogen system in a high rise residential building can cover up to 40% of the electrical load. So in times of power outages or demand response events, a cogen system will operate with a steady baseline to provide convenience power to a large chunk of the building. Cogen systems are typically between 70-80% efficient where grid power is maybe 30% at best. That’s a big deal, and when you factor in reduced utility rates and available incentive packages, cogen makes great sense.
MicroCHP is another natural gas burning technology that can help bring clean energy to the center stage. Just think of a cogen unit for homes or small businesses. Again, the problem is first cost. People balk at spending 4 times the cost of a boiler for a MicroCHP unit. Alternately, a MicroCHP unit will offer a nice payback and a source of on-site power generation to increase grid resiliency.
Using the best of what we have is the only way to achieve our goals. What goals do we have? To breath clean air, to eat healthy food, to live long and happy lives. Without reliable, affordable energy to power our modern lives, all those goals are in question. As I stated earlier, we are in a time of cheap energy, which pretty much puts clean energy tech on hold. Low natural gas prices would lead to a solid micro grid argument, but low electrical prices will prevent a need for that market to grow. For those who depend on the Green Industry for jobs, all we have to lean on is the volatility of energy prices, as bad as that sounds. Those of us who entered into the Green Industry did so with the best intentions. Unfortunately, being environmentally astute doesn’t mean a CEO will sign your engineering proposal.
Reducing carbon footprint is great. Living a sustainable life is exciting. Without it making financial sense, an entire industry full of hard working people who need good, decent paying jobs, continues to suffocate.
The Green Industry, Sustainability, Clean Energy, what ever you want to call it, they are all terms that describe a global need. Sadly, one that is often perceived as a want by the people who matter most – the decision makers.