Dr Geoff Nesbitt, CEO of Verditek, shares his vision of a world free from fossil-fuel dependence, and how it will change the building industry
There has been tremendous uptake in renewable energy adoption over the last few years, and yet the world remains largely reliant on fossil fuels as the fungible energy of choice. Current estimates from various organisations suggest that 81-85 percent of global energy is sourced from fossil fuels. While the emergence of sustainable innovations such as mass market electric vehicles and cheap photovoltaic solar panels have gained traction with consumers, it seems we are still very much in the early days of the journey to fossil fuel independence.
To better understand how the world will wean itself off fossil fuels, we must first accept that electricity will become the most fungible energy resource in the future, displacing solid, liquid or gaseous fuels. Each time energy is converted from one form to another, a portion of the energy is lost as a transactional penalty in the transformation. However, we can increase the efficiency of electricity management by storing electricity efficiently and using it directly, removing the requirement to convert and doing away with ICEs, transformers and other consumptive equipment.
This brings up the question of the future of energy infrastructure. How will we power our cities, homes and businesses? The enormous grid structures that were implemented from the 1950s onwards are wasteful and not well suited for the irregular supply characteristics of renewable energy feed. Additionally, federal and municipal governments are struggling to update, renew, and redesign these aging grid structures, with little government funding available. The solution can be found in microgrids, which are starting to change how we produce and distribute energy locally.
Localised loads & remote control
Locally managed microgrids enable a more suitable balance of local energy loads, containing the burden to each locality which in turn steers performance from the grid. Compared to expansive traditional grid structures, microgrids can respond efficiently to transient requirements and cost less to implement and maintain.
A simple example where a microgrid would excel can be found in a neighbourhood with a good mix of activities such as housing, schools, recreation, government buildings, light industry or commercial shopping centres. The mix of activities helps balance both the opportunity for production and the consumption of power, which will be managed by smart meters and load balancing software. Buildings with large areas such as school, carparks, shopping centres or factory roofs can be utilised for the placement of photovoltaic solar modules. Homeowners can turn their own rooftops into cash generators by the placement of solar modules and, when done collectively, entire suburbs can contribute to providing energy for the local microgrid. Modern software is available that combined with the internet provides all contributing elements to be managed individually and as a distributed system, optimizing performance for the microgrid as a whole.
Building design is already beginning to change to meet greener standards and this will begin to shape the way new homes and municipalities are designed and built. Even in our sprawling cities, we are beginning to see ‘passive’ design and planning giving rise to the smart city as older, buildings are revised or replaced to produce structures that are smarter in both their use of energy and space.
Even in listed buildings that are too cherished to be torn down, BIPV technologies such as lightweight solar can enable complete overhauls of the way these buildings generate, store and consume energy, bringing them in line with modern standards and removing the necessity for energy converted from the earth’s own resources.
Architects and project developers are beginning to embrace existing initiatives including Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and guidelines from the Green Building Council (GBC) to achieve the most efficient energy usage possible within the completed structures.
Not only will passive building design transform buildings and change cities – it will impact the way industries operate. We’re already seeing a shift in the IT industry which is taking steps to reduce the environmental burden created by the air conditioning systems that must keep datacentres at a constant cool temperature.
Looking to the future
While there is plenty left to be done, it should be clear that we have the tools and knowledge to improve our quality of life and sustain our planet, which should be a rewarding incentive in itself.
Emission legislation enacted in the 70s reduced the impact of acid rain on our forests. Removing ICEs and fossil fuel heating from cities is improving air quality and reducing respiratory impacts on health. By keeping in mind the potential recovery of our climate, our oceans and our wildlife, it’s obvious to most people that we need to drive towards sustainable living using the technologies and innovations available today and not wait for tomorrow.