Sustainable Innovation in Energy

By Nathan Nakahara & Celine Chen

What is Energy Sustainability?

At its core, energy sustainability is about meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. This means consuming energy that has low rates of consumption compared to its supply and manageable, minimal effects on the environment. Energy is arguably the most important industry to improve sustainability efforts, as it affects production in all other industries that require power, such as Food, Retail, New Materials, and more. 

Renewable energy, the most popular form of sustainable power, is defined as energy sources that are naturally replenished. Yet, not all types of renewable energy are sustainable. However, other subtopics like water reuse, battery technology, street lighting, and energy monitoring have emerged as alternative and joint solutions for sustainable energy. Holistically, these energy-efficient practices have been making major impacts on the households and businesses worldwide.

Since 2000, the world average energy use per capita has increased by over one thousand kilowatts. With the world’s growing population, this number can only increase in the near future, posing a pressing issue for power sources. 

The world as a whole is moving towards cleaner, sustainable sources of energy. Corporations such as Exelon, the largest nuclear operator in the United States, have made renewable energy a primary mission.

Renewable Energy

renewable energy

As of 2015, 80% of energy generated in the United States still comes from fossil fuels. This creates a massive problem for our environment with the pollution it generates. But where there is a problem, there is a solution. The use of renewable energy, mainly generated from wind and solar energy, has grown from just 7.7% in 2001, to 14.91% in 2016. In fact, the United States possesses some of the best lands for renewable energy sources in the world. For example, one-fourth of land in the United States has wind powerful enough to generate electricity for the same price or less than natural gas or coal.   

Global investment in renewable technology was greater than investment in fossil fuels and nuclear power in 2016. The opportunity to expand on disruptive energy technology is enormous.

Wastewater Reuse

wastewater reuse

The United States has an immense potential to expand water reuse. Typically, water is used once, treated, and disposed of as waste. However, water reuse systems such as reclamation and recycling can create more dependable water supplies by repurposing the water, reducing the environment’s susceptibility to droughts and other emergencies.

The largest problem facing water reuse is the direct disposal of wastewater into rivers, streams, and oceans. This process follows the old belief that water can be naturally treated, ignoring the increased efficiency of direct treatment. The reuse of such wastewater can dramatically increase the supply of potable and nonpotable water resources instead of simply discharging it into the environment. Even though recycled nonpotable water has historically been used for agriculture and commerce, recycled potable water has not been widely used due to the large stigma surrounding it. However, reports conducted by the Water, Science, and Technology Board of the National Research Council found that recycled and current drinking water actually have similar levels of pathogens and chemicals. In fact, leaders in wastewater reuse in California have begun to find new ways to integrate potable and nonpotable water into their water systems.

orange county wastewater

Unlike other states, California has made tremendous, innovative strides in water reuse. California has been engaging in water reuse for over 100 years, leading to California’s annual reuse of “670,000 acre-feet of municipal wastewater”. California has strongly implemented de facto reuse which integrates potable wastewater into the drinking water. Given the advanced technology, treatment plants often transform wastewater into being as clean as distilled water through processes like microfiltration, reverse osmosis, and ultraviolet treatment. Although water reuse is highly energy intensive, it exists as an energy-saving alternative to pumping imported water from distant sources such as mountain ranges.

Battery Tech

battery tech

Currently, consistent power generation is threatening the sustainable and continued use of renewable energy technologies. While solar and wind power can compete price-wise with coal, oil, and natural gas, they lack in providing a consistent level of power to the grid. With unpredictable weather and climate changes, there may not be enough electricity to meet its high demand. In addition, the change in power usage across seasons and time of day means that there may even be a surplus level of energy across the grid. Traditionally, spinning reserves have been a temporary backup solution, but these spinning reserves rely on fossil fuel generators which are highly unsustainable.

Fortunately, new battery technology is poised to solve this problem. By saving and storing energy from times when there is a surplus of energy, batteries could distribute electricity to where it is needed in times of shortages. Batteries also have the potential for a large impact on homeowners and businesses alike and can increase cost-efficiency when using battery storage jointly with renewable energy sources such as home solar panels. In fact, California already has 36% of the country’s battery storage capacity with more projects emerging every year. Specifically, lithium-ion batteries have the capacity to push California towards its target of having 50% of energy from renewable resources by 2050.

Street Lighting

street lighting

New LED lighting solutions are starting to illuminate cities worldwide as an energy-saving source of lighting, replacing traditional street lights while introducing lighting efficiency and customization.

LED lighting systems are 40-60% more energy efficient than traditional outdoor counterparts, saving the United States roughly $6 billion annually. This lighting solution reduces CO2 emissions significantly, decreasing emissions by nearly 40 million metric tons a year within the United States alone. In addition, operations and maintenance costs on local and federal governments are lessened due to the long-lasting nature of LED lights. Despite the pricey hardware, the overall energy and cost savings from LED streetlights pose a great benefit for the infrastructure of cities internationally.

Widely used in the Philippines and the Netherlands, these LED lighting systems not only provide a sustainable alternative to traditional lighting but also present an opportunity to create more comfortable spaces for residents and citizens. Controlled by computers, the LED streetlights can even change colors to fit the theme of a local restaurant or enhance walkers’ feeling of safety and ease. These lights also contribute to keeping communities safe with their sensitivity to movement and ability to accompany automobiles or people on their journey. Using its color features, the LED system is adapted to alert passersby and vehicles of imminent weather changes and natural disasters such as storms and floods. Overall, LED street lighting aims to create a sustainable space that is energy and cost efficient and one that people can enjoy spending time in.

Energy Monitoring

energy monitoring

During natural disasters such as Hurricane Maria, monitoring electrical and other infrastructure systems has become very important to the safety and recovery efforts of the affected areas. As electrical grids expand and become more complex, addressing problems quickly and accurately is a necessity. Even one node in the system going down can shut down the entire grid. Recently a single tree caused a blackout for over 900,000 people in Puerto Rico. The steep mountain terrain and downed trees have made monitoring of power lines difficult.

New technologies, namely drones, are poised to solve this problem. Imagine a fleet of autonomous drones providing real-time data to power companies in places traditional workers cannot reach such as forests and mountains. Traditionally, helicopters are used to locate problems on the grid, and then workers are shipped in by helicopter or truck to broken or downed lines. Utility companies spend millions every year on this process. The cost of using drones could be up to 75% cheaper than using a traditional helicopter.
Using new technologies not only saves money and fuel, but even lives. According to the Department of Labor, electrical workers are still in the top 10 most dangerous jobs in the United States with over 19 fatalities per 100,000 workers. Using innovative technology protects both workers and the environment.

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