Greening in Power Engineering: Hacking Climate Change
Written by: Misty Seastrom & Wade Hill
How can advancing technologies contribute to addressing sustainability and environmental challenges?
What is “sustainability”?
Cambridge dictionary defines sustainability as “the quality of being able to continue over a period of time.” Regarding the environment, sustainability is often defined in terms of “the company’s commitment to environmental sustainability.”
How is this linked to technology?
Technology has made incredible advancements in the last 50 to 100 years. We have smart phones, tablets, autonomic vehicles, high-speed digital systems, the ability to make microscopic sensors for monitoring, the ability to fly around the world in a day, and the ability to create anything we want with 3D printers, to name just a few everyday examples. Many of these things were unfathomable to people 100 years ago. With the rate of technological improvements, it is challenging to predict what our generation will be using in the future.
How does Canada see itself in 10 years?
In the short time period of 10 years, digital technologies will continue to be on the rise. A simple 1% improvement in the sustainability of an electrical device has a huge impact globally. For example, 3.5 billion people are actively using a cellphone . A 1% improvement in energy savings at 1000 kWh per year, multiplied by 3.5 billion users, produces, on average, a 1.75 million-ton reduction each year. A cellphone is just one example of the electrical devices we use each day. Coming down the pipeline is a surge of electric vehicles. Massive research and development is going into energy storage and efficient use. How much energy we use and what sources we collect it from directly impact the environment. Energy demands are increasing each year and, Canada is still using 74% fossil fuels to energize the country. 
How does Canada see itself in 20 years?
While the concern about climate change is real, the impact has not been great enough to make a dramatic shift just yet. Likely, in 20 years, not only will the technology need to improve, but all sources of energy will need a near net zero carbon emission. This is where the use of smart grids will be highly effective to supply Canadians with the power they need at specific times. Technologies surrounding smart grids and smart cities will be in the development of powerful batteries and energy conservation. The sun cannot shine 24/7, and the sun’s energy does need to be harnessed.
The two main factors that influence Canada’s sustainability and environmental impacts are:
- Energy sources
- Energy consumption
Autonomous vehicles have great potential for the near future. Ride share companies have already started to invest. A network to effectively pick up passengers along specific paths would greatly reduce daily traffic. Small autonomous vehicles are generally electric so, if the charging is coming from renewable energy, this would increase sustainability within a city.
The absolute monitoring of our energy systems with data collecting banks is the first step to developing smart cities. Buildings will be required to be “smart,” airways will need CO2 sensors, and transportation within communities must be reduced through new systems.
Buildings and transportation have major emissions associated with them. The concern for climate change is real. If we can improve the efficiency of our buildings through monitored systems, we could reduce our impact on the environment.
Improvements to building efficiency are driven by the 2011 updates to the National Energy Code of Canada for Buildings, which sets minimum performance standards for building the shell, heating, cooling, ventilation, lighting, and electrical loads for new buildings and certain renovated ones. These standards are guidelines for regulatory authorities in provinces and municipalities to target with their own separate building codes .
The energy we use to power, heat, and cool our buildings and run our appliances accounts for 17% of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. Every time we crank up the air conditioning or turn up the thermostat to offset a drafty window, it costs money . This lack of control indicates heating and cooling efficiency losses. To improve thermal building control, and thereby efficiencies, implementing a 24/7 real time measuring and monitoring program would help alleviate these deviations.
What gets measured, gets managed. If we want to increase the efficiency of our homes and our buildings, firstly, we have to know where we are starting from and, secondly, we have to track our progress. Sharing this information is critical too, because it helps us make better decisions. Measuring energy and recording data helps create and define energy benchmarks. Energy benchmarking, labelling, and disclosure ensure owners and operators see the big picture of their investments, including what they can expect to pay in power and heating bills .
Using smart buildings to benchmark data points
- Provides objective, reliable information on energy use and the benefits of improvements
- Increases general awareness of energy efficiency among building occupants, which in turn may affect changes in behaviour
- Prioritizes facilities that are performing poorly for immediate improvement
- Identifies best practices that can be replicated, either within a building or across a portfolio of buildings
- Establishes reference points for measuring and rewarding good performance
- Helps to develop a comprehensive energy management action plan and build the business case for capital investments (retrofits)
- Leads to savings that will lower energy costs while maintaining, or even increasing, profit margins
- Enhances and creates competition through comparison to similar buildings
- Allows participation in green building certification programs and various other environmental initiatives
These objectives can be useful for residential buildings, but there is money to be saved within Canada's commercial sector too. The commercial sector is a broad category that includes offices, stores, warehouses, government and institutional buildings, utilities, communications, and other service industries. It also includes energy consumed by street lighting and pipelines. Buildings use energy for space and water heating, air conditioning, lighting, appliances, and other devices. Pipelines use energy to power pumps or compressors that move oil and natural gas through pipelines .
Commercial demand is volatile because the demand for space heating and cooling is influenced by the weather. In 2013, Canadian commercial energy demand was 1457 PJ and accounted for 13% of total Canadian energy demand. Commercial energy demand increases at an average of 0.7% per year over the projection period, reaching 1914 PJ in 2040 in the reference case .
Creating change, implementing ideas, and lowering emissions
Human civilization has developed some amazing technology to tackle climate change. For example, net zero buildings, cogeneration systems, and solar windows and roofing shingles, to name a few. But what will push society forward? Our answer: A little friendly competition. Multiple studies show that when annual emission stats are made transparent and presented to the public, major changes in occupant behaviour follows. After New York City made it mandatory for large buildings to release their energy data, 77% of building operators responded by making tangible changes to boost efficiency .
Ontario is the first province to make it mandatory for all large commercial buildings to release their energy data. Research shows that taxpayers could save as much as $450 million and one mega tonne of greenhouse gas emissions if all the province’s public sector buildings performed as well as those in the top quarter of their respective categories . A continuation of transparency will help educate and help to create a public opinion that desires change. With everyone’s monitored stats available for public scrutiny, changes in all energy intensive industries will potentially see improvements.