As awareness is rising about the need to reduce carbon emissions drastically, more and more companies are transitioning to renewables as their primary energy source. Yet not even the scores of major companies, including corporate giants such as Apple and Google, that have pledged to use only renewable energy in their operations have gone entirely carbon-free, according to two experts at Stanford University, in the United States, the authors of a new study in the journal Joule.
“To guarantee 100 percent emissions reductions from renewable energy, power consumption needs to be matched with renewable generation on an hourly basis,” explains Sally Benson, a professor at the Energy Resources Engineering Department in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences who was a co-author of the study. “Just purchasing more solar energy in a grid that already has lots of solar generation will not result in zero emissions.”
Many companies that claim to rely entirely on renewable energy are still falling short of zero-carbon targets. The reason is that “they purchase or generate enough renewable energy to match 100 percent or more of their electricity use over the course of the year,” the authors note. “For energy purchases dominated by solar power, an entity generates far more electricity than it uses during the afternoon and sells the excess. Then at nighttime it purchases power from the grid, which is much more carbon-intensive if generated by burning of fossil fuels.”
A solution lies in improving energy usage efficiency. What can companies do to achieve that goal even as they continue to embrace renewables?
To learn some of the answers, Sustainability Times has spoken with two experts, Sanjoy Malik and Jeffrey Perlman. Malik is CEO of Urjanet, an energy data company that aggregates utility interval data to help corporations and consumers understand their energy use and make adjustments for better efficiency. Perlman is CEO of Bright Power, a company that provides energy and water management services for businesses, real estate owners, investors and operators.
Sustainability Times: How can companies calculate more effectively how much energy they need and how much they might end up wasting?
Sanjoy Malik, CEO of Urjanet: With automated access to utility data, companies can gather and analyze insights into where they can better optimize energy usage. These insights can drive spending behavior, forecasts on usage, and strategic initiatives to support cost savings and energy efficiency. The better the data quality, the better the insights, and aggregated utility data can provide a high level of confidence to a company’s broader efforts at improving energy and sustainability initiatives.
It can help corporations maintain transparency and accountability with investors to meet high reporting standards, engage employees in reducing their own utility usage at the office through a clearer sense of their direct impact, and improve the bottom line through the ability to pinpoint cost-effective and lucrative areas for resource efficiency and procurement.
ST: What can companies and businesses do to reduce energy waste?
Jeffrey Perlman, CEO of Bright Power: Many companies own real estate portfolios, but they don’t have a good sense of which buildings have the best opportunities for improvement. Building owners and operators should first find their biggest energy wasters through a portfolio-wide utility bill analysis.
Then, they should work with an energy and water management partner to create and implement a plan to eliminate that waste through operations and maintenance optimization, retrofit projects, retro-commissioning, and installation of renewables.
Last, they need to follow the success of those interventions and react quickly to performance issues, ensuring that each property achieves its financial and environmental goals.
ST: How can companies become truly green?
Sanjoy Malik: What cannot be measured cannot be fixed. Having access to real-time interval utility data is imperative both to ensuring accuracy of reporting and to see where there is an excess of use or efficiencies that can inform immediate action.
Only by having a 24/7 line of sight into this granular data, such as whole-building interval data or real-time smart meter data, can corporations extract critical insights needed to meet sustainability goals. This is applicable for goals ranging from truly offsetting 100% of energy use through renewable energy investments, to uncovering actionable opportunities for critical reductions on a day-to-day basis, such as energy and water usage.
In this sense, only superior data can guide corporations toward becoming truly green, and the real-time insights that come with automation will make this simpler than ever to accomplish.
ST: What do you see as the biggest drawbacks of current company policies in this regard?
Sanjoy Malik: Without accurate and accessible data, companies can’t track the impact of their initiatives, generate credible reports, or build a business case for future investments. Investors are noticing this gap in credible data, too. The World Resources Institute has found that investors are increasingly rejecting inconsistent metrics and generic language in favor of robust performance indicators on energy intensity and water consumption.
The biggest disadvantages of policies that do not include sustainability data management at a granular level are poor decision-making regarding areas for improvement, oversights and blind spots in the complete picture of sustainability, and wasted time and resources spent rectifying bad data once it is discovered.
ST: Renewables are seen as the way forward in large-scale low-carbon energy adoption strategies, yet they have their drawbacks (such as weather-influenced variability and limited current storage capacities). Realistically, what big a role do you think solar and wind can play in energy schemes in coming decades?
Jeffrey Perlman: At the building-level, solar photovoltaic (PV) is the main renewable energy technology that will scale up and it is going to be huge. Most rooftops and parking lots can host a solar panel array, and the solar industry won’t rest until they do. Solar is already the fastest-growing energy technology (as per the International Energy Agency).
With the growth of solar, we will see a rise in battery systems to store the electricity for a time when the sun isn’t shining. We will also see time-of-use energy pricing, led by California, where it is rolling out this year, to give energy consumers financial incentives to adjust when they use electricity in line with the costs of producing and delivering that electricity at different times of the day.
In addition to corporations, various cities and states in the U.S., including New York State, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Washington D.C., San Francisco, San Diego, Chicago, Denver, and Atlanta, have already committed to having a zero-carbon electricity grid in the next few decades. The technology is available today and now it’s being scaled up.