Distributed Grid And Integrative Design in China Could Be Energy Gamechangers

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Rocky Mountain Institute.

In Part 1 we explored one of the gamechangers that would allow China to transition from fossil fuels to energy efficiency and renewable supply—oil-free mobility. In Part 2, we explore two other gamechangers that would allow China to reinvent fire—adopting integrative design for efficiency in buildings and industry, and redefining the future of the electric grid.

Gamechanger 2: Integrative Design

The factories and buildings that use roughly 90 percent of China’s energy can save more energy than previously thought, yet at lower cost, by a new technique we call “integrative design.” It rigorously applies orthodox engineering principles, but achieves radically more energy- and resource-efficient results by asking different questions in a different sequence to yield a different design logic. Optimizing whole systems for multiple benefits, not individual components for single benefits, can often yield expanding rather than the normal diminishing returns to investments in energy efficiency, making very large (even order-of-magnitude) energy savings cost less than small or no savings.

Increasing Productivity in Industry
Energy productivity has long been a key to economic growth, and except for a brief lapse during 2003–2005, China has consistently improved its GDP per unit of energy input. Indeed, China is the only country where such improvement exceeded five percent per year for a quarter-century (until 2001). Best-practice sharing through programs like the Top 10,000 Program, which identifies the most energy-consuming enterprises in the country and works to reduce their energy intensity, improvements in standards for such ubiquitous devices as motors and boilers, and closing uncompetitive facilities have all helped boost these results. And while great progress has been made, much opportunity remains—especially in industry, which uses about two-thirds of China’s primary energy. Energy waste can often be attacked at its source: in the very design processes for the furnaces, smelters, refineries, kilns, and other devices that drive energy consumption in the first place.

So what happens when integrative design meets China’s energy productivity imperative? One example from a carpet factory in Shanghai illustrates the potential. Using integrative design concepts from a Chinese engineer in Singapore, the layout of a heat-transfer pumping loop was radically changed to replace long, narrow, crooked pipes with short, fat, straight ones. The resulting design used at least 86 percent less pumping power to do the same job, and since the needed pumping equipment was smaller and the piping simpler, the whole system cost less to build.

Industrial motors use about 60 percent of the world’s electricity. Pumps and fans use half of that motor torque. Thus, designing out typically 80–90 percent of the friction those pumps and fans must overcome can yield staggering benefits across many energy-intensive industrial processes. For example, integrative design of a Texas Instruments chip fab saved much energy and water while cutting total capital cost 30 percent. A later fab design is expected to save approximately two-thirds of the energy and half the capital cost. Redesigning a Hewlett-Packard data center in England tripled its computation per watt at no extra cost, but full adoption of its integrative-design potential could have saved an estimated 95 percent of its energy and about half its capital cost.

Saving Energy in Buildings
Integrative design can also yield impressive energy savings in buildings. Residential and commercial buildings account for roughly one-fourth of China’s energy use—a fraction traditionally expected to rise rapidly with further urbanization and improved living standards. And while some of the most spectacular and energy-efficient buildings in the world have recently been constructed in China, the average multifamily complex, high-rise commercial building, or historic hutong is poorly insulated, drafty, poorly conditioned, and inefficient. Applying integrative design by considering the whole building as a system can yield remarkable savings in all types of buildings while valuably improving human health, comfort, and productivity.

In both new and old buildings, better-performing windows, insulation, and air-tightening can often make heating, cooling, and air-handling equipment much smaller, more efficient, and cheaper both to build and to run—or, in the best designs, even provide superior comfort without needing such equipment at all.  Doing the right retrofit steps in the right order at the right time can often save 40–70 percent of the energy in existing commercial buildings, yet repay their cost within a few years, as RMI’s retrofits of the Empire State Building and other big, old U.S. buildings demonstrate.

New buildings can save even more at little or no extra cost. Net-zero-energy buildings, now common in Europe with normal or slightly lower construction cost. combine high efficiency (in part through daylighting and natural ventilation) with renewable generation to produce as much energy as, or more than, they consume. Integrating seamlessly with more conventional heat, power, and storage systems can create resilient buildings or campuses that draw on public resources where necessary, but offer standalone assurance when not. From individual single-family farms to large industrial parks, advanced control optimization and remote monitoring can provide comfort, efficiency, and savings, thus enabling new business models focused on the end results that customers really want: warm rooms in the winter; cool rooms in the summer; and lighting, electronics, and hot tea on demand.

Reimagined structures and design must be paired with a conscious attention to minimizing the plug loads within the buildings themselves. Here, through successive development of minimum efficiency performance standards, China has made great progress, but there is more to be done. As appliances, information technology, and other devices gain wider adoption, ensuring minimum standards are enforced and rewarding highest performers requires vigilance and drives more innovation.

Gamechanger 3: Redefining the Future Electric Grid

Needing less electricity would ease and speed China’s—and thus, the world’s—shift to renewable electricity. Once radical energy efficiency has minimized the electricity needed by buildings, industry, and a newly-electrified vehicle fleet, a right-sized grid can be architected to meet customers’ exact demands. Options for that right-sized grid could be fully centralized, or hybridized with local, distributed energy resources.

RMI’s Reinventing Fire synthesis for the United States investigated three kinds of centralized grids (current asset profile, shift to nuclear and carbon capture and storage, and shift to centralized 80-percent renewables plus natural gas), as well as a hybridized half-distributed, 80-percent-renewable grid. The economic cost of the new grid throughout 2010–50 was roughly equal in all cases—about $6 trillion in net present value. But the cases differed profoundly in eight kinds of risk: financial, operational, security, climate, water, fuel, health, and public acceptance. Comparing these risks suggests that the hybridized, distributed model appears far preferable to the others, because it best manages all eight risks and is the only choice that can eliminate the security risk of large-scale cascading blackouts.

A Distributed Grid
Even large amounts of distributed and centralized renewables, especially diversified portfolios of varying solar and windpower, appear resilient with minimal storage (<10 percent of generation). Such choreography has already achieved highly reliable power supply in 2013 without adding any bulk storage in Germany and Denmark (with 25 percent and ≥47 percent renewable electricity consumption, respectively, but with Europe’s most reliable supplies), as well as 45 percent in Spain, 46 percent in Scotland, and 58 percent in Portugal. These nations’ grid operators have learned to run their assets much as a conductor leads a symphony orchestra: no instrument plays all the time, but the ensemble continuously produces beautiful music.

Distributed generation makes high-renewables futures easier and more secure. Denmark has already largely completed over 32 years its shift from centralized power stations, mainly burning coal, to distributed wind turbines and cogeneration, often fueled by agricultural wastes. Denmark intends to reach 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035 and 100 percent renewable energy in all sectors by 2050 at essentially no extra cost. Denmark is also reorganizing its grid in a “cellular” architecture that prevents cascading large-scale blackouts, giving its citizens energy security and peace of mind. Cuba, too, aided by Chinese efficiency technologies, has used distributed generation and microgrids to sustain vital services even when hurricanes shred its rural grid.

An 80-percent-renewable grid
While China’s grid has its own unique needs and attributes, the flexibility and security of a more distributed grid and the possibility of a highly renewable future are both worth considering—especially since China is the world leader in at least six renewable technologies. Interactive two-way smart grids that can use demand-side resources to balance grid generation, such as Tianjin is currently piloting, are another important building block of China’s secure electricity future. And more distribution-level intelligence including autonomous controls can integrate microgrids and balance the complex network of loads and generators.

Achieving an 80-percent mix of renewables may be decades away, but in 2012 more added Chinese electricity came from non-hydro renewables than from all new fossil-fueled and nuclear sources combined, so the shift is gaining momentum. Indeed, in 2013, China added more photovoltaic capacity than the United States has added ever since it developed that technology 60 years ago.

Unprecedented Opportunity

We stand at a rare moment in history, one where current knowledge and resolve can be applied to deliver abundant energy services reliably, cleanly, and affordably to all. For China today, the gamechangers we describe could offer an unprecedented opportunity. As a focal point for national innovation, reinventing fire begins with radical efficiency made possible by a redesigned industrial base, building stock, and vehicle fleets, delivering saved megawatts (“negawatts”) and barrels of oil (“negabarrels”) in abundance. This could create new world-leading industries, and redeploy supply-side capital to other national needs, strengthening the business case for clean energy. The net result is prosperity, security, and harmony—three virtues critical to a revitalized China.

Some 2,400 years ago, Chinese innovators drilled more than a kilometer down for natural gas and liquid hydrocarbons, delivered through bamboo pipes. Today, their descendants can reinvent fire and become the fulcrum for creating both a beautiful China and a healthier, richer, fairer, cooler, safer world.

Source: Rocky Mountain Institute. Reprinted with permission.

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Since 1982, RMI (previously Rocky Mountain Institute) has advanced market-based solutions that transform global energy use to create a clean, prosperous and secure future. An independent, nonprofit think-and-do tank, RMI engages with businesses, communities and institutions to accelerate and scale replicable solutions that drive the cost-effective shift from fossil fuels to efficiency and renewables. Please visit http://www.rmi.org for more information.

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