Day 2: Energy efficiency: the rise of the negawatt
Energy consumption drives modern civilisation. Without easy and reliable access to heating, cooling and power, plus oil for transport & energy for industry and commerce, society as we know it today would instantly collapse. The problem is we have become addicted to energy derived from fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas, and it is these sources, with their unfortunate by-product of releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide (the most important of the basket of 6 main greenhouse gases) when burnt, that is the cause of most of the rise in global temperatures we have seen over the last two hundred years.
Given the two unarguable facts that 1) energy is essential to everything we do, and 2) as the developing world evolves and acquires access to energy for the most basic of functions (almost 1 billion people currently still do not have access to electricity for example) more and more energy will be required, we simply have to be smarter in the way we use it and reverse the tide of ever increasing global energy consumption. The most efficient unit of energy we can ‘produce’ is the negawatt, this is the unit of energy actually not needed to be created because we are more efficient with the use of it, hence less energy needs to be produced in the first place – so the negawatt is a bit of a contradiction; it is actually a unit of ‘non production’ (more about the negawatt in the blogpost below).
At COP21 one of the most pressing concerns that governments will be debating is how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from energy. While world leaders are approaching the challenge from the global perspective, there is much we can all do to approach it from the other end of the energy use spectrum – our own use of it and how to reduce it.
What action can we take?
The good news about energy is that it is easy for all of us to be more efficient and use less of it, without any hit on our lifestyles. It is a total win-win-win situation, as not only are we saving a precious resource, and reducing GHG emissions, but we are also paying less for it and reducing the need to create new additional power stations. Here are just a selection of the types of energy saving actions you can take at: home, school, college and at work:
Citizens: there are many actions that reduce energy wastage, from simple no/low-cost behaviours such as switching to LED bulbs and turning unnecessary lights off, banishing those little red stand-by lights, washing at lower temperatures, only washing full loads, to more impactful, in carbon saving terms, actions such as insulating our homes, purchasing very efficient appliances and upgrading to more efficient heating/cooling systems.
Civil Society: at a group level we can instigate bulk buying of energy efficient equipment at lower costs; become active & lobby government to take action to improve the energy efficiency of social housing stock
Corporates: can audit their offices to uncover wasteful energy usage and habits; launch energy saving campaigns, turn unnecessary power off at peak load times to help stabilise the grid and lobby their landlord to improve inefficient heating/cooling systems.
Thought piece: Never mind the Negawatts
In 2012, according to the International energy Agency (IEA), the planet used around 155,500 terrawatt hours (TWh) of energy, that’s 1.5x 1017 Watt hours. The world’s electricity use in 2012 was around 18,500 TWh. In 2012 the sources of that energy use were roughly: oil (31%), coal (29%), gas (21%), biofuel/waste (10%), nuclear (6%) and renewables and other sources (1%). Expenditure on energy, in 2012, was around 10% of the globe’s GDP. And, again according to the IEA, demand for energy is forecast to grow (using their ‘central’ or most likely scenario) by 37% by 2040, the distribution of this increase is uneven, with growth flat in most of Europe, N America and Japan, but growing markedly in the rest of Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Central America.
Although much attention is given to the current & future sources of this energy requirement, with the focus on reducing the carbon intensity of the fuels we use –basically the idea of moving from a fossil fuel driven economy to a renewably, and potentially nuclear, powered version – relatively less time and attention is given to another alternative fuel, the ‘negawatt’. The negawatt is an interesting concept that focuses on the energy we can avoid using, not the energy we consume. So it’s an energy ‘source’ borne from the concept of energy efficiency, the idea we can power our lives more efficiently, wasting less energy, with no loss of function or reduction in quality of life.
Doing more with less There is much to be said for treating the ‘negawatt’ as the fourth main source of energy supply (after fossil, nuclear, renewables). The term, invented by famous environmental economist Amory Lovins, describes the unit of energy saved, through more efficient products or practices, rather than consumed. Simply put, if you use a more efficient product to do the same job a less efficient version was doing, for example exchanging an incandescent lightbulb at 60 watts, for an LED using 5 watts, the new LED provides exactly the same service, ie lighting a room, however the 55 watts saved by doing the job more effectively become ‘negawatts’ produced. Basically freeing up energy for other purposes, and hence reducing the load on the grid. Ultimately, if negawatts could be ‘produced’ in large quantities at peak load times they could theoretically reduce the need to switch on expensive back-up supply. A rule of thumb says the final 1% of demand at peak times is always the most expensive to produce unit by unit, so reducing that by promoting the idea of ‘negawatts’ could be a very cost effective way of ‘producing’ energy.
Valuing the negawatt The negawatt has obvious value to the individual citizen, in terms of the undisputed fact that if they use less of a product, in this case energy in its various forms, then they will pay less. But given the slow penetration of decades of campaign and incentives to encourage people to take up the energy efficiency habit, and hence save money, then surely we must think of new ways of getting the message across faster about the value of the negawatt. A number of commentators have discussed the idea of paying people who use less energy, something akin to the idea of a Feed-in tariff (FiT) for people who produce their own energy, and indeed in the commercial sector there are incentives for certain industries to shut down unessential machinery at peak times if required by the grid. Of course, although it sounds simple as a concept, it isn’t that simple in reality, with the devil being in the detail.
The negawatt tariff Paying people for not using energy, especially at times of the day when the grid is most stressed, is an interesting concept that might have come of age given the move towards smart meters. In the past such a method of conserving energy impossible to monitor and measure – how could you ensure that you were rewarding people for reduced use? But now with near real-time two-way communications between the individual meters and the energy supplier, a concerted effort by users to reduce their normal energy use, at a certain time, can be monitored and verified, and hence a small payment made for that ‘negawatt produced. That payment would be a fraction of the additional cost of having to bring online expensive back-up energy sources, hence everyone is a winner. The user saves on their bills, receives an extra payment on top, the grid is less stressed at a time of greatest demand and the suppliers save on not having to call on the expensive back-up supply.
It has been estimated that the power of the negawatt could reduce the need to build new expensive power plant, of whatever flavour of energy source. In the USA for example, energy efficiency programmes producing negawatts of energy have found that it is three times cheaper to produce energy this way then from building new, low carbon. power source.
So, let’s hope the power of the negawatt is on the table for negotiations at COP21, it would be an oversight if they missed the obvious advantages of this fourth fuel that each and every one of us has the power to generate!
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