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Sustainable Design in Electrical Engineering
By Dane Stivers
Image: The Holland Energy Park uses heat recovery steam generation, in which hot exhaust heats water and converts it to steam. “The steam is carried to a separate steam turbine generator (STG) to create more electricity before it’s cooled to a liquid in the condenser and cycled back. This process increases the plant’s thermal efficiency to around 55% (the average coal plant is only 32-42% efficient),” according to the company’s website.
For over 60 years, Progressive AE has been committed to innovative and sustainable designs that benefit our clients and communities. In this blog series leading up to Earth Day, we’ll share knowledge and best practices we’ve learned along the way.
In our last blog we discussed best practices for limiting operational carbon produced through mechanical systems, as well as optimizing the building envelope itself. This installment will focus on efficient designs in electrical systems that power the space.
As we mentioned in the last blog, many heat pumps, boiler systems and other mechanical system components are turning over to electricity rather than natural gas. With the push towards electrification, we’ll explore and explain some of the different types of renewable energy sources for supplying electricity.
The advent of the solar photovoltaic (PV) panel is a big deal for green design. Although they’ve been around for a number of years, PV technology has greatly improved, and today’s solar panels are about 20-30% more efficient. Many states are now offering credits for solar energy generation, making it a more realistic and attractive option for many of our clients.
Geothermal energy, or heat generated from the planet’s core, can also be a very efficient option if site conditions allow. If you pair a geothermal heat pump with a high-efficiency motor, the return on investment is significant over time. Besides site conditions, climate conditions may also impact the practicality of geothermal.
Wind energy can be a divisive topic. It is popular as both a renewable, green energy source and a provider of new jobs. Government subsidies and the fact that it runs without fuel also make wind an inexpensive option. However, it only works in geographic areas with enough wind, and many states currently lack the infrastructure to deliver the energy farther away from where it’s produced, leading to wasted energy. It’s not practical in very cold areas where turbines can freeze and can be less reliable if weather conditions deteriorate.
Hydroelectricity is one of the largest untapped resources that we have in the United States, but there are companies working to change that through microturbine technology. At a previous employer, I worked with a local university to implement very small modular hydroturbines on locks and dams that fed back into the utility, so it didn’t have to produce as much steam using fossil fuels. My prediction is hydropower will be one of the biggest up-and-comers in the next ten years.
Power Factor Correction
When electricity comes into a site, only a certain amount is usable, and the rest becomes heat that gets wasted. Technology is coming out now that reduces the power factor and makes more of the energy go towards powering the equipment rather than producing heat.
Increasing power factor through capacitor banks or local power factor correction is a huge carbon footprint reducer for electrical system components. This can be done on most new construction projects and some renovation projects, though it must be looked at on a load-by-load basis.
High Efficiency Motors
Installing mechanical systems with high efficiency motors also saves a lot of energy. Ten years ago, high efficiency motors or ultra efficiency motors were more expensive than the money that they saved, but because of the advances in manufacturing technology, they provide a much faster return on investment.
We can’t talk about designing space without touching on lighting, which is one of the biggest electrical draws in any building. The industry has standardized on LEDs across all projects, which saves energy and therefore energy costs for our clients.
Waste Heat Capture & Cogeneration
Since we’ve established that generating electricity also produces heat, one way to increase efficiency in a space is by capturing that heat for something useful. You can capture heat or steam from one mechanical system to power another, like heating water for the space.
If electrical and mechanical equipment is regularly maintained, it runs more efficiently and prevents breakdowns. If electrical equipment breaks down, you may need a generator that runs on fossil fuels until the repair can be made. So, it’s important to take care of your equipment. We are happy to advise our clients about proper maintenance principles and timelines.
Energy efficiency isn’t just about meeting EPA regulations, it’s about environmental impact and how it benefits the communities we live in. From a corporate brand and public relations standpoint, we want to be good stewards of renewable resources and decrease our carbon footprint.
At one time in my career, I worked for a mining company leading the electrical safety team and also their stewardship program. One of the biggest opportunities to give back to the community was building wastewater treatment plants to treat all the water from the mining process. Rather than leaving behind a reservoir of contaminated water, we created clean water for the community to drink and utilize, which was a huge asset in states like Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. There are many ways big and small that companies can contribute to a greener tomorrow and healthier planet.
Our team is always looking at creative ways to reduce our environmental impact and we love helping clients meet their sustainability goals. Contact us if you’d like to talk with one of our design experts about your project.