Energy Efficiency and Renewables: Benefits Environment & Economy


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Power plants

Fossil fuel combustion generates pollutants. Image by Falco.

Efficient and renewable energy are not only better for the environment – these efforts could mean saving considerable amounts of money.

Researchers performed a modeling study to assess the benefits on an area’s environment, health, and economy that are associated with renewable energy (RE) and energy efficiency (EE).

Results showed that the benefits can vary greatly depending on both the RE/EE considered, and on the location, but these efforts could see savings up to US$ 210 million.

Energy Generation

Energy consumption and demand has increased markedly in recent years, and we, as humans, still produce the majority of our energy from fossil fuels (i.e. oil, coal, gas). As a result, there are concerns about the effect this increased use of fossil fuel energy has on the environment.

More specifically, fossil fuel combustion causes the emission of increasing quantities carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere; this is a greenhouse gas believed to be responsible for global warming.

Moreover, other pollutants are also released in the environment, such as sulfur and nitrogen oxides (SO2 and NOx, x = 1 or 2). Both of these are acidic gases harmful to the environment and to human health, and are formed during of the combustion of “dirty” fuels such as coal.

Renewable Sources and Energy Efficiency

Because of the reasons mentioned above, researchers are exploring alternative options. Energy generated from renewable sources (renewable energy, RE) such as wind and photovoltaics, are examples of this.

At the same time, an efficient use of the energy produced is also very important (energy efficiency, EE). An example of EE is Demand-Side Management (DSM), a scheme in which consumers are encouraged to consume less energy, especially during peak hours. DSM can lead to savings, as it can cause a decrease in the energy consumed in peak periods. This reduces the operational costs of the power plants and the grids.

Solar panel

Solar energy is an example of renewable energy. Image by Jutta.

Energy Savings: Best Combination

Although both RE and EE are important to achieve energy savings, the effects on the savings and on the environment can vary greatly depending on the type of RE or EE, and the location.

It is important, therefore, to understand which RE/EE combination could lead to the best results in term of energy consumption and impact on the environment.

New Complete Energy Study

Researchers from Harvard University (Boston, US) have performed an interesting study on this topic. They conducted their investigation in cooperation with Synapse Energy Economics (Cambridge, US) and the Boston University School of Public Health (Boston, US).

The published their results in Nature Climate Change on the 31st of August 2015.

In their study, they modeled the benefits associated with wind, solar or energy efficiency in different US locations.

Different Scenarios

Decoded Science spoke to Dr. Jonathan Buonocore, one of the scientists involved in the study.

“In our work we developed the Environmental Policy Simulation Tool for Electrical grid Interventions (EPSTEIN), a model which can be applied to the electrical grid for regions of the US and Canada east of the Rocky Mountains. With this tool, we simulated 4 possible RE/EE scenarios: 500 MW of energy generated from wind, 500 MW from solar source, 500 MW generated from peak DSM and 150 MW from baseload DSM.

For these scenarios, we considered 6 different locations all over the US – two locations in Ohio, and one in Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

For each case, we considered the possible changes in the emissions of CO2, SO2 and NOx.”

Wind Turbine

Wind energy can lead to substantial benefits. Image by United States Air Force.

Interesting Results

The results Dr. Buonocore and coworkers obtained were very interesting.

“We saw that there were significant differences between the different scenarios. Generally the wind energy and baseload DSM options were those which led to a greater reduction in the emission of pollutants.

There were, however, also differences between the various locations. Considering wind energy, for instance, the effect was much more enhanced in Ohio than in Virginia.

The use of RE or EE caused the displacement of electricity generated either with gas or coal; again the location had a great effect on it. For the DSM peak scenario, for instance, most of the displaced electricity came from coal for Illinois, while the displacement for Pennsylvania was mainly from gas.”

Economic Implications

Beyond the environment, the reduction in the emissions also has a dramatic effect on the economy.

This study, in fact, showed that the economic benefits associated with these possible RE/EE scenarios could be significant. According to Mr. Buonocore:

“The use of renewable energy and/or energy efficiency could have some substantial benefits. Again, the benefits depend a lot on the scenarios and the location; the lowest modeled saving was US$ 5.7 million for the peak DSM in Pennsylvania, while the highest was US$ 210 million for wind energy in Ohio and Illinois.”

Important Data

The study performed by Dr. Buonocore and coworkers is very important, as it shows which could be the best strategy for future energy management, in term of both use of renewables and energy efficiency. As Dr. Buonocore said:

“It was the first time somebody attempted to look at the possible differences between different strategies and locations; we saw that both these parameters are important in determining benefits to climate and health. We also saw that the location plays a key role; the benefits of renewable energy or energy efficiency will not be the same everywhere, but every case may have a different solution that optimizes benefits.”

Studies like this are essential to develop policies for alternative energy generation and management in different situations.

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