Navigant Research Blog

How Building Innovations Can Help the United States and China Tackle Climate Change

— November 17, 2014

Under the terms of the U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change, China has agreed for the first time to set a limit on the rise of its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  As the two biggest economies in the world, the United States and China have the ultimate responsibility for leadership in tackling climate change.  The next big hurdle is driving emissions downward.  Federal regulation on climate change in the United States has been at a standstill, but elements of this agreement shed light on opportunities to reduce emissions while stimulating the economy.

We know buildings demand about 40% of all energy used in the United States, and there is a lot of room for improvement in how we live and work in buildings.  In China, the opportunities to tackle inefficient building operations are just beginning to unfold.  In fact, China’s State Council Development Research Center projects that energy efficiency in buildings could provide 25% of China’s new power needs by 2020.  The central government projects that, by 2020, 60% of the population will be urbanized and more than 1 trillion square feet of new commercial and public buildings will be added to the country’s building stock (learn more from Navigant Research’s reports, Energy Efficient Buildings Asia Pacific and Smart Cities).

Measure, Monitor, Manage, and Mitigate

As the saying goes: you can’t manage what you don’t measure.  The first big benefit of smart building technologies is insight into how your facility is operating.  In order to make improvements, you must have a baseline.  Recognizing this challenge, cities across the United States (including New York City, Seattle, and Chicago) have passed building benchmarking laws to start a new wave of energy awareness.  A wide array of smart building solutions is available to help building owners track their energy use to meet these new demands.

Smart buildings are defined by integrated and dynamic systems.  From the innovators in building energy management systems (as detailed in Navigant Research’s Leaderboard Report: Building Energy Management Systems) to advanced wireless controls for smart buildings, technology is helping building operators and decision makers shift their operations to new schemes for continuous improvement.  Smart building solutions redesign the processes for monitoring and managing systems from heating, ventilation, and air conditioning to plug loads, and in doing so, provide new ways to mitigate GHG emissions from building operations.

The development of smart buildings should be a keystone in the collaboration and innovation targets of the U.S.-China Climate Agreement, because the enabling technologies not only dramatically reduce energy consumption and GHG emissions, but make real economic sense.

 

Smoggy Skies Drive City Innovation

— September 16, 2014

The air pollution caused by rising vehicle numbers and coal-fired power plants in Chinese cities has been well documented.  But these issues are not limited to cities of the developing world.  In March, smog levels in Paris reached levels that forced the city government to limit vehicle access to the city and make public transportation free.  Subsequent analysis suggests that this drastic measure had a notable impact on air quality, if only temporarily.

Paris is not alone among European cities in suffering from deteriorating air quality.  London and other U.K. cities, for example, have been under the spotlight for failing to meet European Union (EU) standards on air quality.  A report in July suggested that Oxford Street in London was one of the most polluted roads in the word with regard to nitrogen dioxide (largely produced by diesel buses and cars), with levels 3 times the EU-recommended amount – and higher than Beijing.  London and some other U.K. cities are not expected to meet EU targets for air pollution reduction until 2030.

Fewer Vehicles, Cleaner Air

The World Health Organization estimates that outdoor air pollution causes 3.7 million premature deaths worldwide each year; this mortality rate is due to exposure to small particulate matter of 10 microns or less in diameter, which cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and cancers.  Of particular concern in cities are fine particulate matter below 2.5 microns, referred to as PM2.5, which can lodge deep within the lungs.  This life-threatening type of smog is created by burning vehicle fuel as well as other fuels such as coal and wood.

The need to address air pollution is becoming a significant driver for the adoption of electric vehicles in cities, restrictions on the worst polluting vehicles, and the introduction of technologies that can monitor and improve air quality.  Madrid, for example, is using parking fees to target the worst polluting vehicles, while also introducing an electric bike rental scheme.  Boston is piloting high-tech city benches that can collect information on air quality and provide solar-powered charging for electronic devices.  Other high-tech attempts to improve air quality have been less than successful: a project supported by the Mayor of London that used a form of glue to collect contaminants proved to be largely ineffective in capturing vehicle pollution.  More recently, the Mayor has suggested that diesel vehicles, responsible for much of London’s damaging air pollution, may face additional charges for driving in the capital under the city’s congestion charging scheme.

Looking East

In the future, western cities may look to China as a leader in air quality improvement.  In 2013, the Chinese government launched its Airborne Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan, which will see it invest $277 billion in an attempt to reduce air pollution by up to 25% in selected provinces and cities (including the municipality of Beijing) by 2017 compared to 2012 levels.  Beijing alone is expected to invest around $160 billion.  Beijing is also working with IBM on a 10-year project called Green Horizon that will employ sensor technologies, big data analytics, weather modelling, and other advanced techniques to help the city monitor and address air pollution.  The project will also integrate renewable energy forecasting and industrial energy management.

In North America and Europe, air pollution is often associated with a previous age of industrialization, but the growing public awareness of the continuing threat to public health is accelerating policy and technology innovation.  Ultimately, air pollution in our cities needs to be addressed through a combination of transportation and energy policies and the general adoption of clean fuel vehicles and other clean technologies.

 

Refrigeration’s Chilling Effect on Energy Efficiency

— August 6, 2014

China’s meteoric rise has had profound impacts on its economy, people, and environment.  Navigant Research has examined the consequences this growth has on energy used by buildings and cities.   As the country of 1.3 billion becomes more prosperous, the next transformation occurring is in cold storage.  In a recent article, The New York Times Magazine delved into the adoption of refrigeration in China.  On the consumer level, China’s domestic refrigerator ownership has grown from just 7 % in 1995 to 95% in 2007.  As a result, the cold chain (the temperature-controlled storage and distribution infrastructure) is growing as well.

The United States, which leads the world in cold storage, currently has about 3 times the cold storage per capita as China does.  In China, less than one-quarter of meat and 5% of fruits and vegetables travel through a cold chain, compared to about 70% of U.S. food.  As China’s living standards rise, refrigeration and energy use are set to explode.  Currently, cooling accounts for only about 15% of global electricity consumption.

The threat associated with increased living standards is not isolated to China.  An estimated 40% of fruits and vegetables in India are lost to spoilage as a result of poor infrastructure.  Although the Indian economy has not performed as robustly as China’s, there is hope that growth will pick up shortly.  However, with that hope comes the risk of unsustainable energy consumption on a staggering scale, as India and China combined account for more than one-third of the world’s population.  As such, vast advances in the energy efficiency of refrigeration are needed.

Birth of the Cool

Refrigeration, like air conditioning, relies on the vapor compression cycle.  The vapor of a refrigerant is compressed to the point where it is superheated and then travels through a condenser where heat is rejected from the refrigerant vapor and it is condensed into a liquid.  Next, the liquid goes through a throttle valve where it evaporates into a low-temperature, low-pressure mixture of liquid and vapor.  Lastly, this mixture travels through an evaporator that absorbs heat from the space being refrigerated and evaporates the mixture so that it can be compressed and the cycle can start again.

Incremental improvements have been made in the efficiency of refrigeration, but there is a physical limit to how efficient the vapor compression refrigeration cycle can be.  It may be time to rethink the fundamentals of refrigeration.  The U.S. Department of Energy, for instance, has been investigating the use of non-vapor compression technology.  But the answer may not be cooling at all.  Cooling is a means to an end; it is an effective method of inhibiting microbial growth.  But it is not the only method to do so.  Fenugreen FreshPaper uses naturally occurring antimicrobials to keep fruits and vegetables fresher longer – with near-zero energy use.

 

In China, Cars Learn the Roads

— August 5, 2014

Navigant Research’s recent report, Autonomous Vehicles, focused on the activities of large global automakers, Tier One suppliers, and universities and research organizations (including, of course, Google) in Western Europe and North America.  Extensive work is also happening in Japan, and the Japanese automakers are among the companies providing a steady stream of interesting automotive engineering news.

Not so much is heard about what’s going on in China.  The rapid growth in vehicle sales in that country gets most of the headlines, along with the accompanying congestion and air pollution.  But, like Northern California, China also has a tech company that has built its fortune from an Internet search engine and has branched into R&D on self-driving vehicles.  Sometimes referred to as China’s Google, Baidu revealed in July that it’s working on what it calls a highly autonomous car.

Unlike the Google car that famously has no steering wheel or foot pedals, the Baidu concept will be a conventional vehicle with a driver when the first prototypes are shown in 2015, but it will have plenty of intelligence and awareness built in.  The best way to think about it is to consider an earlier form of personal transportation: the horse.  The rider gives instructions about when to start and stop and turn, but the horse knows to avoid obstacles and dangerous situations and can learn familiar routes and navigate itself through traffic.  This is a very different approach to the Google model, which requires highly detailed digital maps of every road before it can venture out.

Affordable Autonomy

The only other developer I have heard contemplating this approach is the Australian startup Zoox, which I mentioned in a previous blog.  Baidu is also reportedly working on a driverless bicycle that will be able to deliver packages as well as provide mobility to those unable to drive.  A prototype is slated for demonstration by the end of this year.

The Chinese approach is an interesting alternative to the high-tech and likely high-cost options for self-driving being developed in the rest of the world.  One of the keys to success in the mass market is affordability.  Another obstacle to the rollout of autonomous driving, in the West, is legislation.  In China, the government can act very quickly to support the modification of laws to allow driverless vehicles to operate on public roads if it deems the technology ready and the benefits are clear.

Chinese car makers have struggled to break into Western markets, typically finding it difficult to meet the extensive crash safety specifications required in the European Union and the United States.  They’ve had more success exporting to other countries in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.  In all these regions, getting permission to offer semi-autonomous vehicles could prove relatively easy, and the potential benefits for safety and traffic flow are even bigger than they are in the high-profile Western countries.

 

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