Thursday, January 9, 2020

Active Efficiency: A Bold Step to Reimagine Energy Efficiency for the Digital Age

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Natasha Vidangos

We need to expand our understanding of energy efficiency—even reimagine it—using new tools in new ways through what we call active efficiency.

For decades, energy efficiency has focused on reducing energy consumption of components (like refrigerators and lightbulbs) to deliver cost savings. Such tools have saved Americans hundreds of billions of dollars a year. Today, information and communications technologies enable more sophisticated integration and automation, and we can make our energy system more efficient using tools traditionally considered outside the scope of energy efficiency. Important examples include:

  • Fine-tuned and expanded demand response programs to increase grid stability and lower costs
  • Greater flexibility and connectivity among buildings and the grid, with consideration of the grid’s time and locational needs
  • Microgrids
  • Optimized city designs that encourage multi-modal transportation and reduce congestion and idling
  • Energy-efficient fuel switching
  • District energy systems, combined heat and power, and waste heat recovery technologies
  • Decarbonization of industrial facilities
  • Water efficiency

Using these tools, we can define active efficiency as the rigorous deployment of technologies, practices, and policies that enable the most productive use of energy at a given place and time. The concept combines traditional and emerging efficiency tools (such as robust building envelopes and efficient devices and lighting) and non-traditional tools (such as new digital technologies).

Active efficiency recognizes that the impacts of energy efficiency investments are time-dependent and that coordinating these investments across systems may enable ever-greater energy savings.

As an example, consider a neighborhood in the Southeast United States in August. The houses have well-insulated building envelopes, smart thermostats, and two-way meters that connect to the neighborhood’s electric vehicle (EV) charging stations. One morning, meteorologists predict record-breaking heat in the afternoon, and automated grid management systems trigger advance cooling of houses in the morning and cycling of air conditioners in the afternoon. Demand response programs—pre-set and automated to match the residents’ preferences—make minor adjustments to water heater temperatures, air conditioning consumption at peak hours, and EV charging, earning residents extra dollars and flattening spikes in peak demand. Residents don’t notice the changes, and the utility saves significant peak generation expenses.

Such automated, optimized coordination among building systems, EV charging systems, and the grid results in more efficient use of grid assets. Over time, this reduces energy use, electricity rates, outages, and greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2020, the Alliance to Save Energy will launch the Active Efficiency Collaborative—a coalition of private- and public-sector leaders—to promote this new vision and address barriers to its implementation.

It’s no small task to optimize energy use across a much larger scale. The good news is that it’s already happening. EPRI and many other stakeholders have laid important groundwork by developing concepts and strategies, such as the Integrated Grid, intelligent efficiency, electrification, demand flexibility, non-wires alternatives, the utility of the future, and grid-interactive buildings.

There is more to do. We need to fully understand the benefits of combining, coordinating, and automating strategies; establish strong policy and regulatory frameworks to enable active efficiency; build appropriate finance mechanisms; and create a coalition of champions. This is no time to be passive, and the Active Efficiency Collaborative is our first step on the path.

Artwork by Craig Diskowski/Edge Design