Four steps to systematically optimise your energy consumption
Many parts of the world are facing energy challenges, yet I still see so much energy being wasted. In a country where the national grid is constrained, an open-air mall still has all their outside lights and three big fountains running. Even worse, they also continue doing this when running on diesel generators. The solution is also not popping up a bunch of solar panels on the roof and then wasting this energy as well.
The best way to reduce your energy consumption (and cost) is to follow a systematic approach in the way you use energy. This approach minimises energy consumption first before investing into more cost intensive technologies. I use the word investing as some of these technologies must last 10 to 20+ years. So, it makes sense to spend time doing it properly. Some of the concepts below are dead simple and boring, but we will get to the technology side as well.
The four steps will be discussed below and should be done in the order they appear. They are:
- Evaluate the requirements and end-use of energy. Why, where and how is it being used?
- Optimise your distribution system. How does the energy get to its end point?
- Improve your generation source. Can you improve how energy is converted?
- Switch to alternative or renewable energy sources. Are there better energy sources available?
Eliminate and reduce energy consumption
The first step is to consider the end-use of energy. Why, where, and how is energy being consumed. We need to challenge what energy is being used for as there may be no good reason why things are done the way they are. Do you need to use this appliance or equipment right now or can you use it later? Do you need it ever? There may be opportunities to eliminate the end-use all together.
For example, if you have several lights in and around your home or business, do you REALLY need all of them? Which are the ones that you can remove completely that won’t impact safety or minimum light level requirements. Do you still see the ones that are on during full sunlight serving no purpose?
There may be more invisible energy uses that you don’t see or think about. You may have a few hot water heating systems in an old part of a building that never get used but are still connected and heating water. Are there “vampire” appliances consuming energy without you knowing – some may be on standby all the time? Have you considered checking that your appliances’ energy saving mode has been activated.
This is the cheapest and fastest way to reduce energy consumption and reduce strain on the grid.
You don’t get more efficient than off.
Now is a suitable time to look at a few gadgets. For those things that need to be on, can we schedule their usage? There are the standard day-night switches available, and many lights have these built in already nowadays. So even if you forget to switch off the lights during the day, it will automatically switch off and on again. You also get motion sensors and smart timers with WiFi if you are feeling more adventures. Or you may need more flexibility in scheduling the energy use, like over weekends or at night.
Monitoring your energy consumption is a good place to start to identify opportunities to reduce your energy consumption, especially if you have large and complex buildings. This allows you to investigate what is running, how long, at what time and how much does it cost.
From the load profile for my home, you can see periods where the power was off and see a couple of high sustained peaks (that’s the hot water heater). What is all the rest in between? I will be expanding on energy monitoring in my clevrHome series. You can build in notifications for certain conditions, like to be notified when the power is off or if there is high consumption. The key is to drive action!
Optimise the distribution system
The second step is to look at the distribution system, i.e. how does the energy get to its end-use point. Many times, energy gets lost moving from where it is generated to where it is being used. Any leaking pipes, be it water or air, is energy and precious resources being wasted. There may be water leaks in the piping of the hot water heating unit that requires continuous water heating as it gets topped up with cold water all the time. Insulation also plays a key role to avoid energy loss, for example, having insulated hot water pipes.
Moving anything up against gravity takes energy. Look for ways to minimise lift as well as distance. For example, an irrigation system should be designed for minimal lift and shortest distance. Even better if you can use gravity and avoid consuming energy all together.
Distribution systems can be difficult to change once they are there and many times, just to access them is a challenge. Upfront energy efficient design is critical to ensure your energy system performs optimally over the long run.
Optimise the generation
The third step is to look at the generation system or how energy is converted from one form to another. Here only we start to look at technology replacement. This is many times where most of us start to reduce energy consumption but miss out the all import first and second steps.
For example, replacing inefficient 50W downlights with 5W LED ones. In this example, after eliminating the lights we don’t need from step one, we only buy new LED lights for those that we need. We then further optimise by installing motion sensors or timers.
Another example here is to install or retrofit a solar water heater. If the cost is too expensive now for you, you can still reduce your hot water usage by using a low flow shower head and taking shorter showers. You can install a timer for the heating element and ensure the hot water unit and the pipes are insulated. By now you should now this is the first step anyway, otherwise you will still be losing energy (in the form of heat) even though you have an efficient solar water heater. The key is to optimise the entire system and not just one component of it.
Alternative and renewable energy sources
The fourth step is where we start looking at alternative and renewable energy sources. While the goal is to use renewable energy where we can, it may be cost prohibitive or not feasible right now. So, a lower carbon intensive energy source is the first change to implement and thereafter a renewable source.
Now that we reduced our end-use, installed timing devices, fixed our distribution system, and installed energy efficient appliances and equipment, we can consider solar and battery storage. With the unnecessary energy consumption eliminated, we can size an appropriate solar energy system with reduced capital costs, and it is also more resource friendly.
Remember solar panels are made somewhere, consume natural resources and would need to be recycled one day. It is all about resource efficiency – whether energy, water, or silicone in solar panels.
Batteries are expensive and have limitations. You don’t want to drain a battery’s energy on some energy use that was not required in the first place. With a solar system installed, we can use our previously installed timers to schedule our energy consuming loads to coincide with periods of maximum solar energy generation. Of course, there are options to store excess solar energy in batteries for non-sun hour use and the feed energy back into the grid.
You can have the most energy efficient equipment in the world and still be wasting energy if the system is not optimised.
In summary, first eliminate and reduce your consumption where you can and challenge the end-use. Utilise built-in energy saving features and install load scheduling timers. Optimise your distribution system to eliminate any waste along the way and then look at more energy efficient technologies. Finally consider alternative and renewable energy sources that you can integrate properly to make the entire system efficient and cost effective.
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