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Will HVAC Upgrades Help or Hurt Energy Efficiency?

image credit: Photo 128746666 © Korn Vitthayanukarun |

The pandemic has impacted energy efficiency in various ways but the most concerning areas are stalled projects and increased energy waste.  The uncoordinated efforts to slow the spread of the virus initially resulted in big buildings sitting largely unoccupied but using the same amount of energy.  Understandably, it is hard to make rapid changes in policy to match the needs of an ever-changing environment.  Some believe our medium to long-term response is probably going to use energy less efficiently.   In any case, COVID has brought the research, investment and advancement of clean energy, clean air and energy efficiency to the fore.

“We’re looking at a really different world when we have to simultaneously address the COVID-19 threat from an indoor air quality perspective and we don’t want emissions and energy use to go up,” said Clay Nesler, vice president of global energy and sustainability at Johnson Controls.

Despite the increase in remote workers, a new working paper by Tufts University economist Steve Cicala reports that overall electricity use in America was actually up in July compared to the year before.  Remote work is resulting “in a mixed format where both offices and homes are simultaneously drawing power,” writes Cicala.  The report also revealed that even though all major U.S. cities were locked down and offices were emptied for the months of April and May, energy consumption by commercial buildings only declined by 15%.  We were all expecting a much larger decrease.  However, experts explain, the method that buildings are owned, rented and operated make it more difficult to control certain systems, like heating and cooling equipment. 

Regarding HVAC systems, upgrades are inevitable.  Businesses, schools and restaurants are looking for ways to increase clean air flow to prevent the spread of COVID.  Energy efficient or not, HVAC company, Carrier, claims their filtration unit can 'inactivate' coronavirus in homes and businesses.  Could the imperative improvement of HVAC systems become an opportunity to install more energy efficient equipment?  At present, the main concern is clean air ventilation to fight the spread of the virus and it may force efficiency to take a backseat while consumption goes up.  Steve Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy says 'some building operators are running their ventilation systems more frequently and with more outdoor air to ensure better air flow to fight the coronavirus. This could double or even triple energy use.'   Instead of energy waste, safety will be responsible for the increase in consumption.  Investors and regulators will have to consider safety first when energy efficiency initiatives are under review. 

“Overall, we reckon investment in energy efficiency will be down 12-15% in 2020,” said Brian Motherway, who is the International Energy Agency’s lead expert on the topic.  “But, driven by economic stimulus actions we’re starting to see, there’s every chance we could see a full rebound in 2021 if that trend continues.”    As part of that trend, school districts in Michigan are investing in clean air flow and energy efficiency.  “We’ve invested over $3 million in retooling our lighting and HVAC systems." said Superintendent Peter Toal.  



Christopher Neely's picture
Christopher Neely on Oct 29, 2020

Fantastic piece, Nevelyn. This question of energy efficiency vs. enhanced HVAC systems in the battle against COVID is a smart one, though I think your notion is correct, that, for now, efficiency will have to take a backseat. However, I think the onus will now be on HVAC system operators to enhance their efficiency, as superb HVAC systems will be part of our new normal. 

Nevelyn Black's picture

Thank Nevelyn for the Post!

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