Authored by: Jonathan Gach of Green Built Alliance and Ryan Miller of NCBPA
This is part one of a two-part series on how investing in building energy efficiency first would enable North Carolina to meet its clean energy, renewable energy, and carbon emission goals more quickly and cheaply.
It’s been more than 40 years since Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act that led to the creation of perhaps the most widely-recognized environmental slogan of all time: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.
A lot has changed since then, including how materials, transportation, buildings, and energy generation work together. We thought now would be a good time to explore a new meaning for that old, but still valuable, slogan.
In North Carolina, there are many reasons to generate and store clean and renewable energy at your home or business. Those reasons include lowering your energy usage and utility bill, taking advantage of available tax incentives, increasing off-grid capabilities and self-reliance, improving your “eco-bling,” or just because it makes you feel good. But did you know that your clean and renewable energy efforts could be made better, and more profitable, by focusing on energy efficiency first?
Here’s how Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle relates to Energy Efficiency, Renewable Energy, and Energy Storage in the current world.
Reduce. North Carolina’s clean energy efforts are currently focused on generating a wealth of new renewable energy. That’s great, but in adopting this emphasis, most advocates and stakeholders are ignoring a major opportunity. By reducing our energy demands, first focusing on buildings, the state could meet our clean energy and carbon emission goals faster and more cheaply. Last year, NCBPA identified a 16.8% potential to reduce our state’s energy usage through buildings alone. That’s 16.8% of energy we produce being wasted due to building inefficiencies. No matter how much more clean and renewable energy we create, it’s irresponsible to ignore the 16.8% we could be saving by improving building performance.
And it’s costing us money. This 16.8% equates to $13.4 billion of utility costs that North Carolina residents and businesses shouldn’t be paying. Adding more clean energy to a wasteful energy landscape is like repeatedly filling a bucket of water that has holes in it! Fix the leak!
Reuse. A wealth of clean energy is available to us through renewable sources including the sun, wind and ocean. As more electric vehicles come onto the grid, that electricity has to come from somewhere. Should we power them with energy generated from fossil fuels? Should we power them with clean and renewable energy? Maybe that’s the wrong question. What if we think about a one-for-one energy swap to power our electric vehicles? For instance, let’s say that you want to buy an electric vehicle and install a charging station at your home. Before doing so, you undertake some home performance and energy efficiency upgrades to reduce the amount of energy your home uses. That way, the energy use increase you’ll see from your electric vehicle is offset by your home’s newfound efficiency. Even with small efficiency projects, you could see a net positive financial return. Taking another example, suppose your company chooses to install charging stations at the office. Why not perform an LED lighting or mechanical system upgrade first, offsetting the new demand (and cost) from electric vehicles? As the Rocky Mountain Institute recently pointed out, “the cheapest and quickest way to free up electricity for EVs is to save it in our buildings.”
“Reusing” wasted energy to power electric vehicles? Sounds good, doesn’t it?
Recycle. Now that we’ve reduced our energy load and we’re reusing our energy savings to power our electric vehicles, let’s take the next step and seek out opportunities to recycle our energy in other areas. There are endless possibilities, but here are a few examples. During the day, excess energy is generated and stored in electric vehicles. How about supplying that power to your office during the day you’re your home at night, when our solar power isn’t generating? Ambient ground temperature remains stable year-round. What if we began cooling and heating our office buildings with radiant floors that require no active energy source to work? Or, how about we take excess hot water from our home’s hot water heater to precharge our furnace? A heat pump water heater can make a home’s mechanical system work more efficiently. All of these strategies make use of readily available power to meet our needs and decrease demand on the grid.There are a wealth of options available for making our homes and buildings perform better!
Solar energy is an important part the energy efficiency equation, and many people are touting solar as the solution to the EV charging question. As great as solar is, we have to address the infamous “duck curve” of solar energy. As it turns out, solar energy production is greatest during traditionally low demand times, such as when most people are at work and not using much electricity in their homes. We can combat this limitation by storing in batteries the energy that our solar panels produce during the day and then using it at night. These systems are becoming more popular and cost-effective, but we can immediately amplify their benefits and improve our long-term impact by increasing building performance now.
Just to be clear, we at NCBPA and in the building performance industry love solar power and other forms of renewable energy. But we know that putting solar on an inefficient home or building is like replacing the engine in a car but not fixing its flat tires.
Sometimes radical innovation is the solution to a problem. Most of the time, though, it’s figuring out how to do better with what we already know and already have. Innovation and common sense don’t need to be in competition. Reducing energy consumption first will help North Carolina meet its clean and renewable energy, carbon reduction, and electric vehicle goals faster and more cheaply. No matter your clean energy preference #EnergyEfficiencyFirst is the foundation.
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