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Smarter Use of In-situ Equipment Cuts Power Use and Green Impact

While solar panels and wind turbines may steal the headlines in the green sector, it's a more effective use of control systems that actually makes the difference, according to exhibitors and attendees at Philadelphia's GlobalCon 2015.

Photo: Green dawn: Photovoltaics from Pfister Energy.
Green dawn: Photovoltaics from Pfister Energy.
Photo: Green dawn: Photovoltaics from Pfister Energy.
Green dawn: Photovoltaics from Pfister Energy.

High profile technologies, notably photovoltaic solar panels, wind turbines and high efficiency LED lighting attract much of the media attention in the 'green energy' sphere. Despite this, it is the far more prosaic management and control systems that actually play the key role when it comes to conserving power, according to exhibitors at this year's GlobalCon, one of the largest energy and facilities management events in the US.

Highlighting this, Chris Tomasini, Eastern USA Director of Sales for Building IQ, a California-based building management systems company, said: "We make existing building infrastructure work better by learning about the building and its patterns from the building control system. Once we understand how the building operates, we're able to go back and make changes to optimise it. It's energy efficiency as a service, as opposed to a capital expenditure.

"It takes us about a month initially to learn all about a building, to learn its patterns. As the seasons change, we might have to take about a week of stand-down time and again learn from the building. Once you're there, it's pretty much a continuous process, 'trimming the sails', making sure it's just right."

Another company aiming to maximise the effectiveness of clients' existing equipment is Texas-based DN Tank. Guy Frankenfield, the company's Manager of Thermal Energy Storage and Biofuels, said: "We build large thermal energy storage tanks. They get incorporated into any district cooling system that has a large chilled water network of piping.

"This allows the owner to shift the electric load of their facility from daytime to night. They can run their air-conditioning system at night time, store up the cold water in our tanks, and then use it for cooling during the daytime.

"It could mean a smaller volume of air-conditioning equipment. It allows users to take advantage of day/night electricity rates, if utility rates are lower at night. Air-conditioning systems also run more efficiently at night time because it's cooler outdoors, so you have a reduction in energy consumption."

The thermal storage system – essentially large, well-insulated concrete water tanks – are also suited to cold-weather applications, where heating, rather than cooling is needed. Frankenfield said: "We have a lot of clients now asking us to store their waste heat if they have a co-generation system. They like to convert that to hot water and store it in the tank.

"A good application is to run the co-gen during the day and then store it as hot water for use in showers and so on."

Co-generation is a means of distributing electricity generation away from large centralised power stations. Often powered by natural gas, it enables the use of heat energy that would otherwise go to waste.

Aegis Energy Services, based in Massachusetts, is a leading manufacturer of co-gen equipment. Explaining its approach, Erik Iller, a Sales Consultant for the company, said: "We produce a combined heat and power machine. It takes in natural gas and, at the same time as it's producing 75 kW of electricity, it's also producing half a million BTUs of heat in the form of hot water.

"The benefit is that it's providing two forms of energy from one input. It wouldn't necessarily bring down the energy usage of the building, but it would substantially cut down the cost of the energy in the building."

Cost was, predictably, a key factor for all exhibitors. In truth, any 'greenwash' benefit from using cleaner energy or reducing consumption was secondary to financial concerns. All were keen to point out the hard, economic benefits of energy saving or clean power generation. Flagging this up, Iller said: "Some customers want green, but they only want green as long as it's not going to cost too much."

Many technologies, however, are maturing, improving efficiency and driving down costs, leading to shorter 'payback' times. Christopher Sodi, Director of Sales and Marketing for Pfister Energy, a New Jersey-based green energy installation company, said: "Ten years ago, when photovoltaics were coming in, the returns on investment were well over five years, as the solar panels themselves were so expensive. That price has come down significantly and the return on investment is now more attractive to the procurement side of a business.

"Right now, the average payback time for our clients is anywhere from the three-and-a-half-year mark to the five-year mark. With operating leases, however, they're cash flow positive from day one."

Photo: Co-gen technology from Aegis.
Co-gen technology from Aegis.
Photo: Co-gen technology from Aegis.
Co-gen technology from Aegis.
Photo: Thermal energy storage, courtesy of DN Tank.
Thermal energy storage, courtesy of DN Tank.
Photo: Thermal energy storage, courtesy of DN Tank.
Thermal energy storage, courtesy of DN Tank.

Many tax regimes around the world incentivise green energy, whether for consumers or businesses. The US is no exception, at least for the present. Signalling the likely change, Sodi said: "Currently there's a 30% tax credit for a corporation to purchase a solar array. That's slated to go off the books at the end of 2016. If it goes away, it may well hurt the business. Having that deadline, though, may entice companies to hurry up and get it done."

Another clean energy generation technology providing rapid payback through increasing efficiency is geothermal. Greg Speziale, Chief Operating Officer of MuoviTech, a Nashville-based ground source heat system manufacturer, said: "We manufacture a system which does geothermal differently to the way it's traditionally done. We get way from the reverse return in every loop. Every bore ends up becoming its own 'home run', so we're able to cut the labour costs dramatically. This is because you only have a fusion joint at the top of the bore head and at the manifold chamber.

"To get out of laminar flow, you also have to move water at two feet per second, and that requires a great deal of pumping power. We rifle the inside of the pipes so we can cut the pumping power dramatically, decreasing the payback time even more. One of the secondary benefits is better heat transfer, so it does fare better versus a standard smooth bore pipe."

While some customers take advantage of tax incentives, the system is efficient enough to make financial sense without any subsidy. Confirming this, Speziale said: "It can stand on its own for certain. Some people will forego all the hassle of the paperwork related to tax incentives and just put it in because they know that the system's going to pay for itself, compared to conventional heat fired boilers.

"[For] residential you're probably looking at a five to seven year payback, while, commercially, it's three to five."

Consumption side technology is also improving, notably with regard to LED lighting. Joe Consigli, Director, C&I Sales for ETi Solid State Lighting, an Ohio-based LED manufacturer, said: "In certain segments, the cost has dropped by about 50% in as little as two years, while continuing to improve light output per application. I don't believe it's bottomed out yet. The level of competition is still driving the cost down.

"The next big thing, though, might not be as exciting as everyone expects – it's continued efficiency in the products that they know and trust and have touched in the past."

One problem the industry continually faces is that the capital outlay involved with installing new equipment can be off-putting. One way to solve this problem, though, is through specialist energy efficiency financing. One business offering this facility is California's Metrus Energy. Explaining how the process works, Donald Drohan, Business Development Manager for the company, said: "If a customer has needs for a capital improvement, we figure out a way to fund that out of their energy efficiency reductions. If the utility bill drops 20%, we give them 15, we'll take five and they buy the item at the end of the term.

"What you're seeing is that technology is bringing the customer to us. So as the tech gets better, as the savings get stronger, there's more of a demand for it."

The cost of energy is a significant factor in deciding the viability of any clean energy project. More expensive energy costs make energy saving more attractive. Drohan said: "Right now we're in just North America, but realistically the North American markets aren't as good as the rest of the world. Our best market is Hawaii, largely because of the high petro costs."

Energy costs can vary significantly between different states in the American market. Explaining the reality of this, Garner said: "The utility rates are so much higher in the northeast – you're looking at 18 cents to 20 cents per kilowatt-hour. By contrast, in the southeast, it's anywhere from eight cents to 12 cents. The southeast is the biggest growth market right now, largely because the utility companies are starting to get on board and realise that they need to do this, while also accepting that a lot of the technology they have installed is out of date."

A number of those exhibitors with a global presence are now seeing Europe as a key market, one with a more developed sense of energy conservation due to its higher prices. Speziale said: "Over in Europe the market is 80% residential, 20% commercial, whereas in the US it's the exact opposite. Americans, in general, have been spoiled. We've always had cheap utility rates, we've always had good infrastructure, so we've never had a lot of the problems that the rest of the world has."

Aside from saving energy or generating it more cleanly, simply buying at the best price has the potential to create significant savings. Steve Willett, Vice President of Amerex Energy Services, a Pennsylvania-based energy trading and procurement company, said: "If you're not getting the right price per kilowatt-hour and dekatherm of gas, then all of the return on investment calculations stand for nothing. Get the procurement right. Very few companies do.

"We've got large organisations that are spending tens of millions of dollars a year on electricity and natural gas and there's very few of them that impress us."

Photo: The green carpet: VIP visitors at GlobalCon.
The green carpet: VIP visitors at GlobalCon.
Photo: The green carpet: VIP visitors at GlobalCon.
The green carpet: VIP visitors at GlobalCon.

GlobalCon took place in Philadelphia from 17-18 March at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. More than 150 exhibitors from across the US and beyond showcased the latest energy, power, and facilities management strategies and technologies.

James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, Philadelphia

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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