5 ways energy efficiency is changing the world

‘Energy efficiency’ is a term heard in almost every discussion on sustainable development and climate change. But what does it involve? Vaidehi Shah explores some solutions with the greatest potential to reduce global emissions.

power lines luoping china
Power lines in Luoping, China. As the world's energy needs grow rapidly, energy efficiency has been dubbed the solution with the "greatest potential" to promote clean growth. Image: Tonkin image / Shutterstock.com

Energy efficiency is a term that is ubiquitous in global sustainability efforts and has been identified by the International Energy Agency (IEA) as “the greatest potential” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It also has a direct link to economic growth - Swiss power and automation giant ABB notes that the most efficient economies generate almost 16 times more gross domestic product (GDP) with the same amount of energy than the least efficient.

Behind the scenes, many companies worldwide are developing solutions that extract more value from each unit of energy.

Despite the potential of energy efficiency to mitigate climate change, “there is a large gulf between what is being done and what could be done” in the area, says ABB, which has over many decades developed a wide range of solutions to reduce energy consumption and improve productivity.

Here’s a closer look at how the range of applications offered by the company helps companies and governments around the world achieve the holy grail of energy efficiency.

1. It’s making energy smarter

The power generation industry is the world’s largest energy consumer, and some fuel sources and technologies can be extremely inefficient. A plant’s electrical system can consume between seven and 15 per cent of all the energy it produces, taking away from its revenues and profitability. 

However, software and hardware interventions can make these power plants more energy efficient and improve their overall performance.

ABB has been manufacturing motors and generators used in power plants for more than three decades, and has the systems and expertise to ensure that these fixtures operate optimally.

For example, the firm’s Symphony Plus system - a combination of software, electrical devices and communication networks - helps industries reduce power consumption through better monitoring and control. Power and water plants maximise their efficiency by automating the various complex processes that take place within each facility.

In Singapore, the Senoko Power Station in 2013 commissioned the installation of the Symphony Plus System, a move that the Senoko power plant’s head of instrumentation and control, Lim Leong Chuan, said would enable plant workers to spot any inefficiencies or malfunctions and correct them quickly.

2. It’s making your energy cheaper and cleaner

The process of generating power to users typically result in electricity losses of about 9 per cent globally. Technology innovations, such as high-voltage direct current (HVDC) systems could reduce these losses.

Power systems have historically transmitted electricity using alternating currents (AC), where the current flowing through the network alternates in direction at a predetermined frequency. While AC power was chosen over direct current (DC) - where current flows in a single direction - because it was seen as easier to interrupt or change voltage, it is less suitable than DC for carrying electricity over long distances.

Not only does electricity transmission via direct current have lower losses than AC, but AC cable transmission also has a maximum distance of 50 to 100 kilometres.

Enter HVDC transmission, which can carry electricity over long distances with minimal power losses. ABB developed the world’s first commercial HVDC installation in the 1950s, and has since delivered more than 70 HVDC projects worldwide.

HVDC helps global cities such as Los Angeles, Sao Paulo, Shanghai and Delhi deliver electricity from far-away sources to urban centres, and is particularly suitable to support the growth of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, which can be located far away from power utilities.

In 2015, for example, ABB launched a $1 billion HVDC transmission link that was commissioned in 2011 by the Dutch-German grid operators TenneT. The link transports energy from wind farms in the North Sea to the German national grid, and has a capacity of over 900 megawatts.

The BorWin1 HVDC Light System, which will transport power from a wind farm 130km off the German coast in the North Sea to an onshore power station at Diele, 75km from the German coast. Image: ABB

The technology is a key component in the future energy system based on renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power which are often both volatile and remotely located, says ABB.

3. It’s keeping your oceans clean

When ships are in harbour, using on-board diesel generators to maintain power can result in air and water pollution, noise, and vibration, resulting in an unpleasant experience for those on board and in the surrounding community.

The amount of fuel burned by ships when they are in port can result in 900 million metric tonnes of annual carbon dioxide emissions, equivalent to 220 coal-fired plants, ABB estimates.

While it has traditionally been a challenge for ports to supply electricity directly to ships due to differing power frequency requirements of ships from different countries, ABB’s shore-to-ship power supply technology allows any ship to be connected to the power grid, regardless of whether their on-board power, voltage, and frequency requirements match those of the port.

Not only does drawing power directly from the port help ships reduce the emissions from their diesel generators, it also helps them avoid potentially costly penalties for pollution imposed by most countries today. ABB estimates that hooking up just one cruise ship to the port could save $750,000 in operational costs, and avoid carbon emissions equivalent to 2,500 cars.

The world’s first commercial shore-to-ship power system was installed in Sweden’s Gothenburg port in 2000, which earned environmental responsibility accolades from the European Union and maritime journal Lloyd’s List.

Shore-to-ship power connections have been implemented in approximately two dozen port terminals worldwide since 2000, including in Rotterdam, Holland and Ystad in southern Sweden. They are also found on over 100 ships ranging from cruise vessels to oil tankers and container ships.

ABB’ shore-to-ship power solution for Gothenburg. Video: ABB Marine Youtube

4. Your favourite snack could be made by a robot – in the dark

Food and beverage companies are increasingly turning to robotics technology to help them meet uncompromising expectations of hygiene and safety while keeping production costs low.

At UK-based Honeytop Specialty Foods, for example, spider-like robots have been plucking pancakes off conveyor belts and packaging them since 2011 – a system that paid for itself in less than a year thanks to cost savings arising from less energy use. 

Not only does robotics technology ensure that no human hand touches the pancakes except those of consumers, it also speeds up production, and reduces labour costs.

Robots in action at UK food giant HoneyTop’s factories. Video: ABB Robotics

These solutions are improving productivity as well as workplace health and safety across a range of consumer goods sectors, including frozen foods, ice creams, medical products, and cosmetics.

Lim Say Leong, assistant vice president of marketing, ABB, also observes that “unlike humans, robots do not need lighting or air conditioning to operate”. Cutting back on these areas of energy use results in even more indirect savings, he adds.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of how robotics can help companies improve their resource efficiency. With over 200,000 robots worldwide deployed across a range of industries, including construction, manufacturing, and health care among others, companies worldwide are set operate in a faster, cheaper, safer, and more sustainable way.

5. It’s cutting your energy bills by more than half

Buildings guzzle about 40 per cent of the energy consumed in most countries, and achieving a comfortable, well-lit environment for occupants while reducing energy usage is always a challenge for building managers.

Building control systems are emerging as the key to raising energy efficiency levels. They allow building owners to control and monitor air conditioning, lighting, and various electrical appliances without much extra effort or compromises on comfort.

Motion detectors, for example, can ensure that energy is only used when occupants are present, while light control that assesses outdoor light can also minimise the use of daytime lighting.

These techniques can slash lighting  costs by up to 80 per cent, and heating and ventilation costs by up to 45 per cent, says the Association of the German Electrical Industry.

ABB has developed an intelligent building control system, the ABB i-bus KNX, based on a global open standard called KNX, which has been installed in thousands of buildings in over 60 countries worldwide, including Singapore’s National Library building, India’s Indira Gandhi National Airport, and the ANZ Tower in Sydney, Australia. 

The system also helped the Museum of Modern Art in Rovereto, Italy, save about $112,000 in just a year by cutting energy use by 28 per cent, and helped Dubai’s Etihad Towers buildings achieve 30 per cent energy savings.

ABB’s Lim notes that in addition to building managers, “chief financial officers of companies should also pay attention to the smart building system to the control panel – energy efficiency can help companies reduce costs significantly”.

These, and many other energy efficiency technologies, work unseen in buildings, industrial facilities, transport systems and nationwide power infrastructure to help power growth while using less, and cleaner energy. 

These technologies could help deliver half the cuts in emissions needed to slow global warming over the next 25 years, says ABB. They could also help Singapore and other similar countries to stay cost-effective and make sustainable progress, says Lim.

“We need to implement more ‘behind the scenes’ technologies to improve energy efficiency and industrial productivity,” he says.

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