Questions Answered: How can we expect to conserve energy in a world where everything is becoming automated and electronic?

One of the things I wanted to do with this blog was to answer questions on environmentally related issues in a non-hyperbolic fashion. If you have a specific question you want answered please comment or send us a message and we will answer it as quickly as possible.

This question came by way of my father. Who after hearing about the insane electrical needs of data centres, some of which can demand as much power as a small town, wanted to know how conservation can still be pushed as a pillar of environmentally based energy policies for developed nations?

The explanation comes in two parts. The first is that increasingly efficient appliances and other products help offset the increases caused by new technology. In fact according to the IESO (Independent Electricity System Operator) Ontario’s total energy demand has actually fallen by 7.5% since 2002. But much of that decrease must be attributed to the 2008 economic downturn and therefore cannot be necessarily understood as a trend.

However, usually when you hear an environmentalist discussing energy policy, conservation and efficiency they are referring to the dramatic improvements that could be made to our energy grid and building designs.

The difficulty lies in what I will call “The Tale of the Two Peaks”. One daily and one yearly, both in reference to energy demand. According to OPG (Ontario Power Generation) the least amount of energy that Ontario requires is approximately 11 000 megawatts. This occurs during the dead of night when most people are asleep. As people wake up and turn on the radio or TV electricity demand increases and continues to increase until peaking somewhere between 4-7pm. At the peak, electricity consumption can be as much as 10 000 megawatts more than the baseload demand. The difference is increased further on days with extreme weather when air conditioners or heaters are maxed out. This is the first peak.

The second is a similar idea, but seasonal. In Ontario, the difference between summer and winter peak demands is approximately 1100MW. Which to put in perspective is roughly the total daily demand for all of Mississauga. But this seasonal difference is far greater in both warmer climates and family dwellings. For example, a study done in Australia showed that on the hottest day of the year household demand for power reached 90% above the average peak demand.

These peaks create a situation where the energy infrastructure must be built to be able to provide power for the one moment of single highest demand, which causes two problems. The first is that, using Ontario as an example, the government has slightly above 34 000MW of installed power, even though the average demand in Ontario is only a little over 16 000MW. This means that resources are being wasted on constructing all this extra capacity that is rarely necessary.

The second problem is that although renewable energy, such as hydropower, is effective at providing base power levels, its output is relatively steady and uncontrollable. This leaves electric utilities to use nonrenewable sources such as natural gas or coal to deal with the peaks as their output can be increased and decreased in accordance to demand. Currently Ontario has approximately 20 000MW of installed non GHG producing power generation, nearly 4000MW more than Ontario’s average demand, and yet 17% of the energy output in 2011 came from natural gas and coal.

So what can be done? The answer is four fold, input smart meters and time of use pricing, dramatically increase building standards, decentralize energy grids and prioritize solar electricity in hotter climates.

1)   Smart meters and time-of-use pricing: Smart meters allow for utilities to track when power is used and therefore enables them to charge different prices for energy use at peak and non-peak times. These meters are consistently a source of controversy for baffling reasons such as the fear that the wireless transmission of the information is dangerous (but wireless internet and cell phones are totally cool right?). In reality the issue is that it’s new and people don’t like change, especially when it could theoretically cost them more money. The reason resistance to the use of smart meters so frustrating is that time-of-use pricing is no more than an implementation of basic economics to the energy grid, price increases as demand increases. But the real advantage of smart meters is that it uses market pressures to level out the curve of electricity demand in a day and reduce the peaks, thus decreasing the need for both the creation of new power plants and the inclusion of natural gas and coal into the energy mix.

2)   Increase building standards: Today’s developers understand that their profit margin exists entirely between the cost of building the house and what they can sell the house for. Thereby absolving them from any responsibility to build efficient houses. Take a look at this picture.  It is a thermogram displaying the difference between a traditional building on the left (behind the tree) and one built to Passivhaus standards. The brighter the area on the image the more heat is being lost. Passive housing prioritizes insulation to keep the building warm in the winter and cool in the summer dramatically reducing electricity demand. The understanding and technology exists today we simply need it to become standard. This change is especially important in areas where seasonal peaks are more drastic as properly constructed passive buildings can dramatically reduce the need for the use of air conditioners.

3)   Decentralize energy grids: The advantage of a decentralized energy grid is that the smaller each power generator is, the more reliable and resilient the grid can be. With decentralized energy production if one power supplier goes down it will have a smaller impact due to the fact it produces a smaller percentage of the total power available to the grid and would therefore require significantly less generating capacity to back up and thereby reducing the need for natural gas and coal generators.

4)   Prioritize solar in hot climates: This has less to do with conservation and more to do with energy policy. But quite simply, increasing the use of solar electricity is an ideal solution to areas with high seasonal peaks due to extreme summer heat. On the days where the most energy is needed, it can be assumed that the sun will be at its strongest and therefore solar cells will operate at their highest capacity and reduce the need for alternative power plants to be online.

These are the changes that are called for if we are to move towards a world of sustainable energy. This is not the typical type of conservation that people are regularly faced with, such as turning off their lights or using a power bar for your electronics, but although it lacks visibility it remains incredibly important and an issue that should be discussed as much as any other facet of energy policy.


Confirmation code please ignore: 69H79GA2JC44