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Archive for the ‘Energy Efficiency’ Category

On February 16, 2012, technology news website Xconomy hosted a talk in Cambridge with renowned environmentalist and co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) “think-and-do tank” Amory Lovins about the Institute’s Reinventing Fire initiative. Reinventing Fire provides a roadmap for moving the U.S. economy entirely off of coal, oil and nuclear energy by 2050 while at the same time sustaining vigorous economic growth. Unlike other climate change blueprints such as the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Climate 2030 report, the Reinventing Fire initiative does not count on aggressive federal policy initiatives and assumes that the price of CO2 emission will remain zero. It also does not pin its hopes on a technological “silver bullet”. Rather, RMI envisions a series of self-reinforcing cycles of technological improvement in existing technologies across the automotive, building, industrial and electricity sectors that will allow efficient, green technologies to outcompete inefficient, fossil-fuel driven technologies in the market.

In his talk, Lovins focused mostly on the automotive sector. In this area, RMI identifies three self-reinforcing technological learning curves leading to the super light-weight “Revolutionary+ Auto”. The first is whole-system design, where engineers take a holistic approach to automobile design with a view to reducing weight as much as possible. Supporting this are advanced materials, such as the carbon-fiber composites currently used in the new Boeing 787, which could produce massive weight reductions by replacing steel in automobiles. As part of his talk, Lovins passed around a carbon-fiber composite “hat” that was as light as plastic and yet (according to Lovins) had withstood a full-on sledge hammer blow without a scratch. While currently quite expensive and difficult to mass-produce, Lovins sees huge potential for technological improvements in the carbon-fiber manufacturing process eventually making it competitive with other materials. Finally, once weight has been significantly reduced, all-electric powertrains will become more feasible. Current all-electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf have a maximum range of about 100 miles on one charge. However, because most of a vehicle’s energy use comes from its weight, a significantly lighter vehicle would be able to go farther with fewer electric batteries and smaller motors (making the vehicle even lighter) than current models.

During the question-and-answer period, an audience member asked about improvements in energy storage technology. Holding up his cell phone, Lovins remarked that he believed that portable electronics would drive innovation in this area, and that it would be better for the automotive industry to focus on reducing weight and drag than on developing new batteries. Lovins also downplayed the need for extensive grid storage to handle a higher mix of intermittent renewable energy sources in our electricity supply. Noting that variability in the energy supply from renewable sources is predictable, Lovins expressed confidence that with sufficient expertise a stable electricity grid could be run with a diverse mixture of 80-100% renewables even in the absence of large-scale storage.

The Reinventing Fire initiative presents a hopeful view of an economy almost completely free of fossil fuels by 2050 based on evolutionary improvements in currently existing technology. Much more information on the initiative is available in the book Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era by Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute (available from Amazon). I am currently in the middle of reading it, and have found it to be well-written and insightful, with helpful color charts and illustrations and a writing style that is understandable for a non-engineer but not overly simplistic. The Reinventing Fire initiative grew out of the RMI’s 2004 book Winning the Oil Endgame, which is available for free in PDF form on the author’s website here. I encourage anyone with an interest in renewable energy and energy efficiency to take a look at these books, or check out Amory Lovins’ TED Talk on winning the oil endgame.

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Brookline's LEED certified public health building

As part of the Brookline Climate Week, I attended an open house at the town’s LEED Gold certified public health building led by the town’s Health Director Dr. Alan Balsam. The building represents a significant commitment on the part of the Town of Brookline to address sustainability in its public buildings and provide an example of sustainable building practices for the community.

The Brookline Public Health Center was built in 1953. When the building came due for renovation in the early 2000s, Dr. Balsam decided to use the opportunity to make the building a showcase of green building practices by incorporating LEED certification into the retrofit. The town selectmen challenged Dr. Balsam to raise the extra money this would cost. As a result, much of the money was raised privately, including $125,000 from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (now part of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center) and $30,000 raised by community group Friends of Brookline.

The renovated building incorporates a number of sustainable building materials, including cork floors, bamboo paneling, low VOC paints, and shelving made of a cellulosic composite material made from leaves. Other important green features include double glazed windows that can be opened to cool the building, use of glass for interior walls to allow light to penetrate the interior of the building, low flow toilets and waterless urinals, and motion-activated low energy lighting. Old building materials such as wood, metal and toilet fixtures were recycled rather than sent to landfill.

The centerpiece of the renovation is the building’s 25 kilowatt solar photovoltaic system, which Dr. Balsam estimates covers approximately 35% of the building’s electricity use and which saved the city $8000 in electricity costs last year. Visitors will soon be able to monitor the system’s energy generation in real time on a monitor in the lobby. The solar panels are raised so as to be very visible from the street, which Dr. Balsam hopes will serve as advertising for the project and encourage others in the community to consider solar energy. The economics of the solar system were more challenging. While the town estimated a 15 year payback for its contribution, Dr. Balsam estimates that the total payback (including external funding) will be on the order of 50 years. However, this system was purchased before the precipitous drop in solar panel prices of the past few years. A project today would likely see a much faster payback.

Dr.Balsam indicated that he sees the LEED project as a way to encourage sustainable behavior both within the municipal government and in the community through leading by example. He also hopes that the project will provide a way to begin talking to people in the community about the links between climate change and public health threats. The project has already created some converts: Dr. Balsam noted that several people in the town’s building department were initially skeptical but were won over to sustainable building practices by the renovation. As a result of this project, the town is now obliged to include sustainability in its feasibility studies for all future renovations of municipal buildings. Through high visibility projects like this, Brookline is clearly putting sustainability and the threat of climate change on the local political agenda. Hopefully this will lead to more such projects in the future, both within Brookline and in other municipalities in the state.

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Dr. Steven Chu, the U.S. Secretary of Energy, gave a talk on November 30, 2011 at MIT on how the U.S. can lead in the clean energy race. In addition to discussing several new technologies in renewable energy and energy efficiency that will have great impacts in the coming decades, he challenged MIT students to come up with solutions to barriers to energy efficiency as part of President Obama’s Better Buildings Initiative.

First up, Secretary Chu discussed several technologies of the past century that have drastically changed the way we live. The development of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer in the early 20th century and crop improvements during the Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s have so far enabled global food production to keep pace with the expanding population and averted a Malthusian crisis. The evolution from vacuum tubes to transistors to integrated circuits (popular computer processors in 2011 boast in the range of a billion transistors each) has led to a spectacular explosion of consumer electronics that has revolutionized the way we communicate and consume information. Assembly line manufacturing and the relatively rapid adoption of the automobile in the early 20th century changed the face of our cities and solved one pollution problem (mountains of horse excrement) while introducing others (smog, lead, and greenhouse gas emissions).

Against this backdrop, Dr. Chu discussed a number of promising advances that could play major roles in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. He  focused on advances in materials science, such as the carbon fiber reinforced plastic used in the body of the Boeing 787, the introduction of high tensile strength steel in automobiles, substitutes being developed for rare earth metals used in electronics, more efficient and lower cost solar cells, and next-generation battery technology that shows promise of drastically reducing the cost of energy storage.

Dr. Chu also spoke about the DOE’s Sunshot Initiative, which aims to have cost-competitive solar power by 2020. Due mostly to large scale manufacturing in China, the price of solar photovoltaic panels has plummeted in recent years, outpacing even optimistic estimates. While this has been bad news for certain US companies trying to compete in the market, it has had the advantage of pushing solar ever closer to the magical break-even point where it becomes competitive with fossil fuels. To help people get past the up-front cost of solar installation, companies such as Simply Solar of Arizona offer programs that allow homeowners to lease solar cells for 20 years with a low initial down payment and fixed monthly payments thereafter. For those who are interested, Sun Run offers a similar program here in Massachusetts.

While I found Dr. Chu’s talk to be informative and enjoyable (if a bit technical in parts), I was hoping he would spend more time addressing the policy and business aspects of winning the clean energy race. As Dr. Chu himself noted, the mass production of solar panels in China has made the competitive environment difficult for US firms. Renewable energy policy in this country has largely been left to state and local governments with little leadership from the federal government. I had hoped that Dr. Chu would spend more time discussing the Obama Administration’s roadmap for clean energy over the next 20 to 30 years and the policy steps they are taking to make that happen. Nevertheless, Dr. Chu is an extremely engaging speaker, and the technologies he discussed were exciting.

A video of the talk is available here.

 

 

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With 30 miles of district heating steam pipes, Boston has one of the most extensive systems in the country.  Veolia Energy, the largest district provider in the area, services 240 buildings—or 44 million square feet of space—in the Boston Metro area.  Recently the GenOn Kendall Station combined heat and power facility connected to the district heating system.  In 2008, the EPA issued a permit allowing the station to install a second pipeline across the Longfellow Bridge.  Once constructed, this pipeline will save an estimated 275,000 short tons of carbon—the equivalent of taking 50,000 cars off the road—and will provide twice as much steam to Boston metro area customers.

We talked to Bill DiCroce, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Veolia Energy, and Jim Hunt, Chief of Environment and Energy for the City of Boston, to find out about district heating and its contribution to Boston’s climate change planning.

Bill DiCroce explains the efficiency created by district heating and cooling systems.  District systems connect multiple energy consumers to centralized energy sources.  Combined heat and power (CHP) facilities burn fuel to produce electricity and steam, which is transferred to consumers using underground pipes.  Waste heat from power production is recycled into usable thermal energy rather than being released back into the environment, increasing fuel efficiency and minimizing environmental impact.  According to the International District Energy Association (IDEA), combined heat and power facilities operate at about twice the fuel efficiency of traditional electric-only generating stations.

Jim Hunt comments that district energy systems are great for Boston, where 76% of greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings.  Connecting buildings to a system that uses less fuel and produces less harmful emissions is a promising path to mitigating the impacts of climate change.  Using off-site resources also frees up valuable on-site space where boilers, chillers, or other energy systems would have been.  In addition, buildings earn alternative energy credits by using CHP sources under the Green Communities Act, which may make them eligible for government incentives.  Leading by example, Boston currently uses district heating to service its 250 municipal buildings, which uses 200 million KW of electricity annually.

We asked Mr. Hunt and Mr. DiCroce why Boston and other cities don’t use district heating and CHP systems more, given the energy savings they allow.  They explained that while district heating and cooling systems have lower ongoing operation and maintenance costs, building or expanding district heating systems is extremely capital intensive.  Putting piping in is very expensive, and extremely difficult to do underneath an established infrastructure.  If it was not included in the original construction, it makes the most sense to add district heating when developing new areas or doing a major rehabilitation of an old area.

There is a lot Boston needs to do before it can catch up to district heating giants like New York City, whose 100 mile system serves over 18,000 buildings.  Among his current strategies to augment the system in Boston, Mr. DiCroce knocks on developer’s doors when they are building new projects to suggest they connect to the district system.  With decreased environmental impacts and increased energy efficiency, district heating is a smart option for buildings because it delivers what he calls “the most bang for your buck” in heating, cooling, and electricity.

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