Utilities in the United States could save more than $100 billion per year in the effort to decarbonize the country’s power supply if their customers invest in efficient, grid-responsive buildings, concludes a report released earlier this year by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Brattle Group consultancy.
“Those savings would require both significant investments in energy efficiency, as well as outfitting buildings with the technology required to shift electricity use based on the ups and downs of solar and wind power,” Canary Media reports. But “compared to the business-as-usual scenario, that would shave more than one-third off the cost of decarbonizing the country’s power supply.”
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The report “put a spotlight on the importance of energy efficiency and demand flexibility for decarbonization more broadly, not just when we think about decarbonizing buildings,” said report co-author and Brattle Group principal Ryan Hledik.
The role of efficient buildings in delivering a cheaper, cleaner grid isn’t new, and as Canary Media’s Jeff St. John points out, it’s “fairly straightforward”. As buildings trade out fossil fuels for electricity in heating and cooking, “they’ll need to become far more efficient in how they use that electricity to avoid overwhelming the grid with new demand for power.”
Much of the improvement turns on “technology that can shift power use away from times when the grid is strained,” Canary Media explains, including an array of home appliances controlled by smart thermostats. Utilities already practice demand response to limit power consumption when it’s about to spike. But “a more strategic deployment of these demand-management techniques would reduce the need for building power plants and grid infrastructure to meet rare moments of extremely high demand, which can make up as much as a quarter of total grid and power plant costs.”
Utilities in Canada, the U.S., and elsewhere are already investing in efficiency and demand flexibility under the general heading of “non-wires alternatives”, though Canary Media says the investments in the U.S. have been far too slow to tap into the full potential.
While demand response programs focused on big, industrial customers date back decades, more recent residential programs compensate households that give their utilities permission to remotely turn off some appliances to control peak demand. Two-way wireless communication devices and demand response management systems (DRMS) have brought a new level of automation to those arrangements over the last 15 years.
With the U.S. Department of Energy trying to triple energy efficiency and demand flexibility in the building sector this decade, Canary Media says the latest study relies on “far more detailed data, tied to real-world grid modeling processes and reflecting real-world trends in building efficiency and electrification. This could be relevant for utilities and regulators trying to capture the full value that building upgrades can bring to their grid investment plans.”
Canary Media has more on the opportunity for grids and the need for early action on energy-efficient buildings.