The world is facing a climate crisis as the levels of global warming gases, especially carbon dioxide, have already exceeded the levels needed for a stable and safe climate. As noted in a December 2012 article in Scientific American, “Extreme Weather Explained”, global climate change has outpaced even the dire predictions of several years ago. At the same time our health and environment suffers from “conventional” air pollution including low-level ozone, soot, sulfur and nitrogen oxides, and mercury. The principal sources of world-wide climate pollution and unhealthy local pollution are coal-fired power plants. In addition, coal presents real environmental and safety hazards through mining (including mountain-top removal), washing, transporting, burning, and the disposal of ash.
The US Department of Energy, Energy Information Service reports that Americans have reduced the portion of electrical energy from coal from 49% in 2007 to 37% in 2012 by substituting clean energy (as we are poised to do with offshore wind in Maryland), and by using more natural gas. Converting to alternative energy sources can be costly, slow, and difficult, but is clearly necessary. Alternative energy sources (other than large hydro) supply grew from 3% of national electrical energy supply in 2007 to 5% in 2012. At the same time, new supplies of natural gas increased natural gas’s role from 22% in 2007 to 30% in 2012. Unfortunately the reason for this increase is the development of fracking and horizontal drilling wells, with their severe environmental challenges. Natural gas is at best a finite and interim fuel that pollutes less than coal.
The 2008 EmPOWER Maryland law presents another and substantial opportunity to lower our reliance on coal by encouraging reductions in electrical energy use. The 2008 law has the modest goal of reducing our energy and peak power demand by 15% by 2015 on a per capita basis using 2007 as the reference year. Although we were lagging in that goal, we now seem to be on track to meet that goal.
We can do much better
A 2009 McKinsey study, “Unlocking energy efficiency in the US economy”, found that individuals and businesses could decrease their energy use by 25% through savvy investments in energy efficient technologies. In 2010 I designed a daylighting system for an auto repair facility in Columbia, Maryland that reduced electrical energy demand by 40%. A 2011 overhaul of the lighting at the Maryland Sierra Club office reduced energy use by 74% and it just did the same for its new larger office.
To combat climate change and reduce adverse health effects, we also need to reduce the amount of natural gas used for electrical generation and for direct use such as space and water heating.
Reducing energy and power demands
Before outlining what is needed for a new EmPOWER law, it is important to understand two distinct metrics: Energy and Power. Energy is the capacity of a physical system to perform work. Residential consumers pay for kilowatt-hours (kWh), a measure of electrical energy, and that is all analog electrical meters can measure. For example, it takes a certain amount of electrical energy in kWh for your refrigerator to keep your food cold for one day.
Power is the rate at which energy is delivered. It is measured in units of kilowatts (kW). Peak power consumption generally occurs on hot summer afternoons, when air conditioning systems are running the hardest. Unfortunately, the ability of power stations to deliver power is reduced when temperatures are the highest. Regional and local power distribution capacity is lower as the electrical resistance of wires increases as temperatures rise. When demand exceeds supply brownouts or outages ensue. Thus, reducing peak power demand helps reliability. Because smart meters track power use, utilities can bill for peak power usage. Because large electric users currently pay for peak power consumption (as well as total energy consumed), they try to reduce their peak usage. Extending this plan to the retail level could further improve reliability while providing more opportunities to reduce electric bills. Even now, residential consumers can reduce their bills by allowing their utility company to install a Digital Cycling Unit (DCU) that can turn off their heat pumps and air-conditioners when the energy grid is stressed.
The Maryland Energy Administration (MEA) has held meetings and solicited comments to gather information on how to improve and extend EmPOWER law. Details about the process and their report are posted on the MEA website: http://energy.maryland.gov/empower. You are also welcome to contact me for further information.