A lot of problems in the world seem so big, there doesn’t seem to be much that the average Joe or Jane can do about them. Members of the HVAC industry, however, have the capability to do a lot about carbon emissions, which in turn are a major contributor to global warming.
According to a report from research analysis firm McKinsey & Co., “The United States could reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2030 by 3.0 to 4.5 gigatons of CO2e” using tested approaches and high-potential emerging and existing technologies - technologies that are currently available, accessible, and pretty much familiar to HVAC contractors.
The report estimates that facility-focused improvements could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 870 megatons by 2030, “the equivalent to removing 170 million vehicles from the road each year, or planting 6.5 million acres of trees, an area the size of Maryland.” Lighting retrofits could provide 110 megatons of abatement, but more-efficient HVAC equipment could reduce 45 megatons annually.
Ron Blagus, energy marketing director, Honeywell Building Solutions, which sponsored the report (“Reducing U.S. Greenhouse Gases: How Much at What Cost”), said it looks at GHG reductions for both new structures and the existing building market: “what building owners can do now to replace their carbon footprint, and what new buildings can do now.”
MAINTENANCE AND CARBON“Maintenance plays a very large role, and really always has,” Blagus said. “Once a building is erected, from that moment its systems begin to degrade. It’s really incumbent on the owner to maintain. HVAC systems tend to be the largest component of the energy bill.
“I think the biggest thing that contractors can do is to be conversant in the lifecycle costs of certain equipment,” he continued. “Owners tend to be focused on first cost with as least cost as possible. This translates into monthly cash flow. When you look at lifecycle cost, higher first cost may translate to lower cost over time. Contractors need to be able to explain to building owners the difference between first cost and lifecycle cost.”
The amount of energy used to operate the HVAC system is affected by its regular maintenance. When mechanical systems need to use more energy to operate, they require more electricity to be generated by power plants, which in turn releases more carbon to the atmosphere.
The amount of carbon required to power all the electrical systems in a building are what are called the building’s “carbon footprint.” It’s one way to measure a building’s environmental impact.
The awareness of the carbon footprint is high, opening up opportunities for mechanical systems contractors. “Carbon footprint gets so much media attention these days, and it’s almost forcing people in the building industry to look at and understand it,” said Blagus.
The rising cost of fuel oil “really got us looking at buildings seriously. Carbon footprint tends to refer to environmental impact, but, as contractors, we can use it to explain energy benefits and lifecycle benefits.
“I think that what is making this concept of carbon footprint a little more interesting right now is the fact that we have rather quickly approached $100 per barrel,” Blagus said, with similar increases in the costs of natural gas and electricity. At the same time, global warming was gaining prominence and acceptance.
This “confluence of events,” Blagus said, “changed the dialog of how we are talking about environmental consequences and our responsibilities to manage all of those.”
EXISTING SOLUTIONSWhile the awareness of the need to reduce energy consumption is rather recent, the technologies to do so have been developing steadily over a number of years. So, significant reductions are currently possible in the short term with existing technologies based on familiar science.
The immediate opportunities, Blagus said, are to go for the low-hanging fruit (which drives payback) rather than more esoteric technologies, which tend to have longer-term savings. “We are now looking at technologies that do not use carbon-based fuels.” The four main renewable technologies, he said, are solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal.
Solar technology, he explained, includes both domestic water heating (solar thermal); and solar photovoltaic (PV), which converts the sun’s radiant energy to dc power, then to ac power. It’s driven by the amount of solar radiation available, which makes it a climate-sensitive technology.
A government subsidy (renewable energy portfolio standards), Blagus said, provide incentives for utilities to make sure that some portion of their energy generation is generated by renewable sources.
The presence of these incentives, plus investment tax credits, dictates where the markets of opportunity are. The cost of competing power also determines where it is more cost effective to install solar systems; “what does a local business or building owner pay vs. what they would pay for renewable energy,” Blagus said.
California was the first market to open up to solar, he explained, because a combination of high power prices, state subsidies, and a sunny climate. Other states that are “solar friendly include North Carolina, Oregon, Connecticut, Maryland, and Arizona.
“When we first began to sell solar in 2003, we would think Florida, Texas, etc., would be likely states, but it’s competing with local electricity prices. We recognize that there will be the odd case where somebody will accept 20-30 year payback, but it’s not the norm.”
Wind power, he said, focuses on “finding an opportunity where we can offset some of the base load with wind energy. Renewable energy in our description is used to offset base load,” Blagus said.
“Wind operates in microclimates. We find points on the map where we can consistently generate wind power.” The amount of base load that can be offset varies with the type of building and the business it houses. “Hospitals have a majority base load,” he said, due to their constant operation of services such as laundry. Office buildings have much less constant base loads.
Biomass is a big umbrella for a large number of thermal energy conversions, one of the simplest of which is taking a waste product, such as wood chips, and converting it into thermal energy. “Wood chips come from a variety of sources,” Blagus said, “such as lumber waste, construction debris, etc. We can make hot water or steam by extracting thermal energy,” either through burning or gasifying (burning wood chips in an oxygen-deprived environment, creating a synthetic gas that behaves similarly to methane).
“You are no longer burning a fossil fuel,” Blagus said; “it’s a carbon-neutral fuel. It can achieve a major cost reduction over natural gas.”
Geothermal systems, of course, extract heating or cooling energy from the earth, operating along the same lines as a heat pump in commercial applications. It can be successfully applied throughout many parts of North America, he said.
“We have mapped out all the different locations in North America where we could use any of these renewable technologies,” Blagus said. “It gets right down to an economic discussion with the building owner. We can quickly dismiss technologies that will not be feasible.
“We’re sticking with what is tried and true,” he continued. “The way that they operate is really fairly straightforward. The way they transfer energy is fairly straightforward. Information is readily available on these four. We view this as being able to generate electric energy or some sort of gas substitute, transferring one type of energy into another type of energy - in our case, electricity. In other cases, some sort of latent energy (in a combustible energy) is transferred into heat energy.”
A software program called VERA even allows building owners to use weather forecast, and gas and power pricing forecasts, to decide where they are going to source their heating-cooling power, he said. The product was initially sold to utilities for demand management during peak load periods. “We can aggregate loads, and it can have a dramatic effect on power availability,” Blagus said.
The McKinsey report, he said, indicates that the HVAC industry has the most abundant opportunity to reduce carbon footprint. “Within the building industry, most of the solutions that have the strongest economic drivers are those that use existing technologies. We needed to learn how well positioned we are to satisfy the markets that we’re in, to make sure we are directionally accurate when we try to come up with solutions for customers.”
That is good advice for anyone in the business world.
For more information, visit www.mckinsey.com.