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If I Were the Energy King: Buildings

Doug Houseman's picture
Visionary and innovator in the utility industry and grid modernization Burns & McDonnell

I have a broad background in utilities and energy. I worked for Capgemini in the Energy Practice for more than 15 years. During that time I rose to the position of CTO of the 12,000 person...

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  • Jul 28, 2021 12:30 pm GMT
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This article is the first of four, covering what I would do (these are my personal opinions, not anyone else’s) if I had control of the energy industry. These are designed to provoke discussion and thinking, not to dig in on a position. My position can be changed on any of these topics with enough data.

This article covers buildings, one of the largest users of energy. The format is the actual “rule” I would put in place, followed by my reasoning for making the rule. Please enjoy, think and thoughtfully respond to these articles.

 

1. I would require two kilowatts of solar on every residential unit no matter how old. If a building had 10 apartments, it would have 20KW, but no more. Why 2 kW per residence? Because almost all the power that amount of solar PV can produce would be consumed on site. It is the lowest cost configuration for universal deployment that creates meaningful amounts of power but should not cause massive power quality issues. That amount of PV would not need storage and would not produce massive exports to the local grid. I would fold the cost of the PV into each unit’s utility bills over a 20-year period and assign monitoring and operation of the PV system to the local utility.

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2. Require an energy efficiency standard building code that would at least double the requirements for a high-performance building today and require retrofit of all buildings to that code before they could be sold. The code would cover residential, commercial, and industrial buildings with any form of heating or cooling, including protected historic buildings. Commercial buildings would be required to display their energy efficiency rating at every entrance in 40-centimeter-high numbers. The rating would be based only on the building’s heating, cooling, and lighting systems and the building’s physical and energy envelope. Buildings would be audited and re-rated every 5 years or whenever heating, cooling, or lighting systems were replaced. This revised rating system makes it clear how good or bad a building is at using energy efficiently, reduces “tricks” to increase a building’s rating, and allows owners adequate time to make required upgrades. Some buildings would not make the cut; the land they stand on could be sold and the building torn down and replaced. It gives a pass to buildings like carports or storage sheds that are used to shelter things, not provide a working or living environment for people.

 

3. I would require that manufacturers remove their appliance models in the lowest decile of energy efficiency from the market every 2 years. This raises the average energy efficiency of each type of appliance on a regular schedule, and forces manufacturers to constantly innovate. It does not mandate any specific improvement, but it does take the worse performing models off the market. In some cases major gains are still to be made on appliances, and some are not going to get much better without a major breakthrough.

 

4. I would create an appliance-replacement program to encourage consumers and businesses to periodically swap their low-efficiency appliances for high-efficiency appliances. This program would give the purchaser the difference between the midpoint price of appliances at their current level of energy efficiency (or the lowest efficiency models now sold- see item 3) and the least-expensive high-efficiency model if they trade up to a higher energy efficiency model. The grant amount should be based on the mid-point of the price in each energy-efficiency category. Purchasers could take advantage of this program every 6 or more years – depending on the typical life of the appliance - per type of appliance (refrigerator, freezer, ovens/ranges, microwave, AC, furnace, heat pump, etc.). The old appliance would have to be turned in. Second items of the same type are not eligible for the subsidy.

 

5. I would require all architects, general contractors, and others involved in designing buildings to take at least 40 hours on energy efficiency theory and practice, including materials, and design considerations before they could renew their licenses. I would require each major jurisdiction to develop their own outline for what is being taught. Energy efficiency is a topic that is not well taught in some schools. The regional differences in construction types, insulation needs, etc. would be done at the major jurisdiction level (e.g., states in the US). This allows the course to be relevant to the local environment.

 

6. I would require electrical loads to get “smart” and provide secure communications to a building (home) management system. The buildings would be required to enroll in a demand side management (DSM) program. I would allow building occupants to set their own parameters for what actions are allowed from a list, occupants would be required to choose a certain minimum percentage of energy use to enroll. I would allow manufacturers and others to agree to a single communication method and data communication (e.g., WiFi and IEEE 2030.5), but would allow them to work to find a good standard for everyone to use, royalty free. This would allow flexible load, that the building occupant has a strong input into, if they don’t want to give up air conditioning in the summer than they need to choose other loads to reduce (e.g., vehicle charging or hot water).

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Dr. Amal Khashab's picture
Dr. Amal Khashab on Jul 28, 2021

It is very hard to implement in parallel . Each item ia an initiative and needs centeral entity to creat awareness , assigne the viability ( technically , economically and financially)  and then propose implementation options .

It looks as " I have a dream " .

The main barriers will be the customers affordability .

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 28, 2021

Doug, all of your ideas seem reasonable to me, but I will make a general observation.

Among all of your suggestions there's somewhat of an "energy consumption is bad" undertone. It's a leftover of the 1974 OPEC oil embargo, when we were all convinced we must use less energy. But is energy consumption really bad, or the environmental impacts of generating it?

I grew up near Chicago, home of the Manhattan Project, FERMILAB, and Argonne National Laboratory. In primary school we were taught nuclear energy is the way of the future, that energy efficiency will be almost irrelevant, that we'd have so much we wouldn't know what to do with it. I learned all the waste from an individual's lifetime of nuclear energy consumption would fit inside an empty Coke can, that electricity would be "too cheap to meter". 

As time went on I realized that was the problem with nuclear energy. If energy was too cheap to meter, it wouldn't be profitable. And in an economy driven by consumption, that's bad. Nuclear energy is simply too efficient and economical. It takes so little fuel to make so much energy, that it shoots itself in the foot.

IMO, no matter what imrpovements you make to home or appliance efficiencies, or building codes, as long as humanity's primary driver is consumption we're doomed.

Ultimately, I don't believe we are - I believe if we take the environmental impacts out of energy we can use as much of it as we like, that consumption of energy isn't a problem, and that's why I'm a nuclear energy advocate. But I'll tell you: fighting against consumption of oil, and cars, and solar panels, and wind turbines, and of other unnecessary material things and their manufacture, and all of those environmental impacts, that's a fight and will always be. Every step of the way.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Jul 29, 2021

IMO, no matter what improvements you make to home or appliance efficiencies, or building codes, as long as humanity's primary driver is consumption we're doomed.

Well said, Bob. I pretty much agree. Or maybe, in the end, I completely agree, but see it as a complex and difficult issue. 

It's hard to move away from consumerism in a culture in where consumption is foundational. It's at the root of our economy, with large and sophisticated industries devoted to elevating it.

As in all social animals, it's in human nature to compete for status. We happen to live in a culture in which status is largely equated to material wealth. But that's a historically recent development. It doesn't have to be that way.

I recently re-read a Tony Hillerman novel, The Fallen Man. There was an incident related in the story that struck me. There was a Navaho man who had left the reservation, become a successful businessman, and made a lot of money. He had returned to attend a ceremony, for one of his relatives IIRC. Somebody congratulated him on looking well, and added that he must be enjoying being wealthy. He replied something to the effect of "No, I am poor. I will always be poor. No one ever taught me to sing."

Evidently, the man felt lonely and missed the Navaho community of his birth. In that community, status was based on contribution to one's community and the regard of peers. Material wealth beyond one's needs was a sign of spiritual illness.

At least, that was Hillerman's (possibly idealized) view of the Navajo culture. We could do worse than to emulate it. The trouble is that for many of us, it's necessary to achieve wealth before we can appreciate how hollowed out it can leave us.

Audra Drazga's picture
Audra Drazga on Jul 30, 2021

Roger - what a great response and so true. I will be checking out that book!  We have also become a disposal society where it is cheaper and easier to toss something like a DVD player vs getting it fixed. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 30, 2021

Agree with Audra, Roger.

Love "Material wealth beyond one's needs was a sign of spiritual illness." Was, and is.

Audra Drazga's picture
Audra Drazga on Jul 29, 2021

Doug, I love this post and am looking forward to the follow-up discussions that occur from it.  I hope the community will join it - I would love to hear what everyone thinks.  Here are my two cents on a few of them:

1) I would require two kilowatts of solar on every residential unit no matter how old. 

My Comment - what about the issue with what goes into making solar panels and their disposal when they retire.  I am all for solar panels if we can find a way to recycle and minimize the waste at the end of their life cycle.   I would be curious to hear from utilities how this would help them or not? 

2) Require an energy efficiency standard building code that would at least double the requirements for a high-performance building today and require retrofit of all buildings to that code before they could be sold. The code would cover residential, commercial, and industrial buildings with any form of heating or cooling, including protected historic buildings. 

My Comment -  who is going to regulate this? Some buildings can't even keep up with their structural issues - the Florida Condo building that just collapsed is a great example.  How are we going to make sure they keep up with EE programs too.  I do like the idea as commercial buildings are big consumers of energy, and the more efficient we make them, the less demand on the grid. 

3. I would require that manufacturers remove their appliance models in the lowest decile of energy efficiency from the market every 2 years.

My Comment - this seems like it would be tougher to enforce and could have an impact on their profits.  If they constantly have to put money into R&D, would this cause them to raise their rates on new products? 

4. I would create an appliance-replacement program to encourage consumers and businesses to periodically swap their low-efficiency appliances for high-efficiency appliances.

My Comment - The key here is the swap for sure.  I was just discussing this the other night with my family. Many people who have taken advantage of a new EE refrigerators, moved their old non-efficient ones in their garage - defeating the purpose. 

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 29, 2021

"My Comment - The key here is the swap for sure.  I was just discussing this the other night with my family. Many people who have taken advantage of a new EE refrigerators, moved their old non-efficient ones in their garage - defeating the purpose."

Audra, unless the new appliance was significantly more efficient, the environmental impact of securing the raw materials for a more-efficient model, manufacturing it, and shipping it across the ocean would likely be greater than any savings it could offer during operation. Replacing a functional appliance with a new one from China because it's 5% more efficient is going from bad to worse.

The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) estimates US efficiency products, installation, and services is a $60-115 billion industry. When efficiency experts brag about how much money they can make selling efficiency, I ask "OK, what's the environmental impact of your $115 billion efficiency industry - the products, installation, and services? What about the employees commuting to work and driving home each night? Is it possible you're creating more CO2 emissions than you're preventing?" It's a question they're never able to answer, and it should be the first one to answer.

"My Comment - what about the issue with what goes into making solar panels and their disposal when they retire."

That goes for appliances, too. Although old appliances may not be toxic, they're taking up space in some landfill.

 

Audra Drazga's picture
Audra Drazga on Jul 30, 2021

Good points Bob! 

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Jul 29, 2021

I don't think energy efficiency for buildings can be fully addressed by measures that focus just on individual buildings and their appliances. Thermal buffering and diurnal load shifting associated with heating and cooling are best addressed at a district level. I.e., district heating and cooling, or district thermal ballasting for heat pumping within individual buildings. That means taking advantage of day-night temperature swings for high and low thermal storage. In arid climates, summer daylight cooling needs can often be satisfied by nothing more than circulation of cool fluid accumulated overnight. Likewise, winter heating can be satisfied by circulation of warm fluid accumulated during the day. Depending on local climate and time of year, diurnal buffering may need to be augmented by heat pumping. But when augmentation by heat pumping is needed, at least the coefficient of performance (COP) will be high.

In humid climates, diurnal temperature cycling is weak; it will almost always be necessary to rely on heat pumping to at least some degree. But district thermal ballasting can still give all buildings with a district the COP benefits of geothermal heat pumps at much less cost than what building owners would otherwise have to spend on separate implementations for each building.

IOW, efficiency standards need to address utility districts, not just individual buildings.

Edward Reid, Jr.'s picture
Edward Reid, Jr. on Jul 30, 2021

"Show me the money." 

https://www.buildinggreen.com/feature/challenge-existing-homes-retrofitting-dramatic-energy-savings

"The cost of such retrofits is an impediment—running tens of thousands of dollars per house. As Bruce Harley, technical director for Conservation Services Group, told EBN, “I’d be hard-pressed to find a house where you could do [a major energy retrofit] for less than $50,000.” Other experts EBN spoke with, including builder John Abrams, agree. Using the estimate of $50,000 per retrofit, achieving the near-term 2030 Challenge of retrofitting 1.5 million homes per year in the U.S. would cost $75 billion per year.

 

Roger Levy's picture
Roger Levy on Jul 30, 2021

There are a number of good and interesting thoughts buried among Doug's mandates, however each comes with both positive and negative impacts.  Start with the 2kW residential solar mandate.  

1.  Who pays for the solar - the customer, utility or society?  There are means to address all three candidates, however every mandated implementation always, always comes at higher cost and with more inefficiency than a market-based implementation.

2.  What about the environmental impacts?  Mining, manufacturing, installing and maintaining solar cells have real environmental costs.  Expanding solar panel implementation well beyond today's saturation will almost certainly come with rapidly escalating environmental costs.

3.  What about operational impacts?  If you assume compliance with the 2kW suggested standard, what you wind up with is very low demand during the 10am-4pm time frame, followed by rapid escalation of demand from late afternoon until early evening.  There will also be severe demand spikes due to intermittent cloud cover and those days when the sun doesn't shine.  Who will provide the rapid response generating resources to respond accordingly?

I believe the solution to each of these issues is found in a transition strategy that systematically targets each of the market segments and each of the alternative generation/conservation technologies over a 10-20+ year time frame.  Transition accomodates new technology development, the use of market-based incentives, and changing environmental (not just climate) situations.

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