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Air Quality

Published on June 26th, 2018 | by Tina Casey

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Trump Or Not, Pollution From US Power Plants Is Going Down

June 26th, 2018 by  


Emissions from power plants in the US have been on a downward slide for years, thanks to the retirement of older coal power plants in favor of natural gas and renewables. Meanwhile, the long term economic trend is up, up, up. Evidently coal is not the be-all and end-all for a healthy national economy, right?

Actually, that thing about coal power plants is only part of the story. Energy efficiency is not a sexy beast like solar cells and wind turbines but it also factors in the idea that economic growth is possible without increasing emissions from power plants. For more on that score, we turn to the latest big news from the Energy Department’s Better Buildings Challenge.

Power Plants Are Getting Cleaner — No, Really!

For some hard numbers on the power plant trend, check out the latest report from Ceres. The green investor organization took a look at emissions from the 100 largest US power producers from 2005 to 2017. During that period GDP grew 20% even though there was a 24% decrease in CO2 emissions from the electricity sector.

You can find more good news under the title, Benchmarking Air Emissions of the 100 Largest Electric Power Producers in the United States, though — spoiler alert — the good news about CO2 emissions from power plants is somewhat tempered by a recent finding on US methane emissions along the natural gas supply chain.

Wait — The Trump Administration Cares About Energy Efficiency?

I know, right? Weird! Well, President* Trump doesn’t seem all that fond of federal policies that promote energy efficiency, but the Department of Energy seems to harbor some affection for them.

As charted frequently on the electronic pages of CleanTechnica, DOE has been merrily rolling along with its nuts-and-bolts clean tech mission no matter what White House says about bringing back coal jobs.

The Better Buildings Challenge is one of those all volunteer Obama-era programs clean tech initiatives that the Trump Administration is continuing to pursue — quite vigorously, by all appearances — through the Department of Energy.

Buildings are a key focus for federal clean tech policy because, to put it bluntly, buildings are a legion of evil energy-sucking vampires and the numbers prove it. Last year, residential and commercial buildings gobbled up a full 39% of total US energy consumption.

In effect, improving energy efficiency is like building new zero emission power plants, only in reverse. Kind of.

Group Hug For Sabey Data Centers

The idea behind the Better Buildings Challenge is to motivate private sector partners to develop IRL best practices for significant breakthroughs in energy efficiency.

Partners commit to improving energy performance by 20% over 10 years, and they also pledge to share their energy efficiency secrets with other companies.

Aside from bottom line savings, the partner companies also score some free publicity.

Last week, for example, the Energy Department highlighted the achievement of one its partners, Sabey Data Centers.

The company took the standard pledge of improving energy performance at its Intergate.Quincy data center in Washington State by 20% over 10 years. It beat that goal by a wide margin. Just four years out from its 2014 baseline, the company achieved a 24% performance improvement.

That sounds like a monumental task to begin with. Further complicating the effort is Sabey’s business model:

A majority of the data center locations operated and maintained by Sabey are multi-tenant colocation facilities, where each customer may have varied needs, including different server enclosures and non-standard IT equipment. This can make it difficult to implement facility-wide energy-efficient designs and technologies.

Right you are, Roger Ramjet.

So, how do you herd cats in a tenant-occupied building? Rather than yelling at everyone to turn off the lights before leaving their rooms, Sabey focused on infrastructure improvements. High efficiency cooling equipment was a big one, including “smart” energy storage that matches fan speed with server load.

Overall, the result was a 57% improvement in energy intensity and more than $200,000 in energy costs saved annually.

Herding Cats For Energy Efficiency

So, you may be wondering why Sabey — or any other commercial building owner/operator — should really care about all this, since the company could simply pass energy costs along to its tenants.

Good question! The obvious bottom-line answer is that Sabey is competing with other property owners to enlist tenants, and today’s commercial tenants are looking for high efficiency buildings.

Assuming the energy savings are passed on to tenants, Sabey can potentially offer a better deal. The company can also offer better quality. Here’s DOE with the explainer:

…the integration of energy conservation measures allows for a very simple data center environment control strategy, leading to an increase in the overall reliability and customer satisfaction with the Intergate Quincy data center. Sabey was recently recognized by DOE as an example of leadership in action in the 2018 Better Buildings Challenge Progress Report.

Aside from direct bottom line considerations, Sabey can also offer tenants a little something extra for their public relations. The 30 tenants in Sabey’s data center get bragging rights to high tech green energy equipment, and they have the 2018 Progress Report to prove it (scroll to Page 32 for details).

It’s also worth noting that new financial instruments are beginning to take the up-front sting out of investing in energy efficiency retrofits. One arrangement, for example, is similar to a power purchase agreement. The up-front cost of the retrofit is picked up by the installer, and the loan is paid back gradually through savings on utility bills.

The Vast, Spreading Tentacles Of Energy Efficiency

It’s become commonplace that US businesses are actively seeking clean power, which means that corporate-level decision making is having an impact on grid stakeholders when the topic is what to do with old coal power plants (and nuclear power plants, for that matter).

Energy efficiency adds the punch of slowing electricity demand growth, but unfortunately a strong national policy for ramping up energy efficiency standards seems like a remote possibility these days.

Despite the growing awareness of energy efficiency benefits in the real estate community, there is still a significant measure of inertia when it comes to investing in energy efficiency retrofits.

That’s why all-volunteer private leadership models like the Better Buildings Challenge can make a big difference. Here’s the happy recap from DOE since the program launched:

…DOE works with more than 350 market leaders that represent more than 4.4 billion square feet of building space. Partners reduced their energy intensity by an average of two percent per year, keeping them on track to meet the program’s 10-year, 20% reduction goal. Additionally, through the Better Buildings Challenge, more than 40 Financial Allies have extended more than $12 billion in capital for efficiency projects.

Boom!

We’re reaching out to Sabey to get some insights on the impact of the Better Buildings Challenge on their business model moving forward, so stay tuned for that.

Follow me on Twitter.

*As of this writing.

Image (screenshot): via Sabey Data Centers.


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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



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