Energy efficiency – can cities inspire change?

Big cities place bigger stresses on the environment. Can we afford inaction and allow future generations to face the consequences? The solutions to these problems are already here, says R. Narayanan, Country MD of ABB Malaysia, and Lead Business Area Manager of ABB Motion Asia.

World Environment Day is celebrated each year on June 5 to encourage and raise global awareness of environmental protection. This year, the theme for World Environment Day is ‘Ecosystem Restoration’, and it centers on resetting our relationship with nature, something which requires greater conviction and a more cohesive effort. The world is not just home to you and me. There is an intricate ecosystem where species depend on each other to survive and thrive.

Having called Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, home for the last five years, it is easy to imagine that climate change, carbon emissions, and the degradation of our ecosystem is a problem for scientists and conservationists elsewhere. In tropical Malaysia, there is lush greenery and blues skies in most places. For the more adventurous nature enthusiasts, Malaysia boasts the Belum Temengor Rainforest, one of the world’s oldest rainforests, estimated to be more than 130 million years old; the Mulu National Park which has the largest cave passage in the world; and the Sipadan island which regularly appears on lists of top three dive spots. It would be unimaginable if future generations are only able to marvel at these natural wonders through books or the internet due to our actions or inactions.

Cities as a starting point

According to the United Nations, cities make up just 3% of earth’s land area but generate about 80% of the world’s GDP. The importance of cities will continue to increase as two-thirds of the world’s population are projected to be living in urban hubs by 2050, with the largest expansion expected in developing countries. As the epicenter for human activity, cities account for 60% to 80% of energy consumption and at least 70% of carbon emissions.

Against this pressing landscape, we are reaching a tipping point to restore the natural harmony between cities and the environment. This needs to happen at a speed and scale which will avert a greater crisis. Human activities have altered almost 75 percent of the earth’s surface. It is time to restore our relationship with nature and the ecosystem which we all depend on.

Energy efficiency in buildings

How cities evolve moving forward will be crucial to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement. The potential to make tangible progress towards a sustainable future begins with energy efficiency – in our homes and the places we work and play, in how we commute, and in the water networks that we rely on. The value of energy efficiency is underscored by its ability to meet our energy needs without having to expand energy supply. It means deploying solutions and prioritizing actions at the final point of consumption i.e., in buildings, tools, products and machinery, without adding further strain on energy infrastructure.

Buildings account for more than one-third of the energy and half of the electricity used globally. They are also responsible for approximately one-third of global CO2 emissions. According to the International Energy Agency, direct and indirect emissions from electricity and commercial heat used in buildings rose to 10 GtCO2 in 2019, the highest level ever recorded, after flattening between 2013 to 2016. By adopting proven heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system (HVAC) technologies, we can take the first steps towards driving a low-carbon future for cities.

Such new technologies open opportunities for smart buildings operations. Energy requirements of a building can be automatically adjusted to adapt to the actual needs. For example, air flow in offices would slow down in the early mornings or late evenings and during weekends, when the occupancy level is low.

Flow control is also relevant. In older buildings, valves, throttles, and dampers are used to regulate the flow of air or liquids.  This means that the motors in fans and pumps applications are running at full speed all the time and wasting a lot of energy. A better and more efficient option is to use variable speed drives to control these motors. With a variable speed drive, the motors can run at exactly the speed that is needed for each application and according to the actual load of the building. Also, it might be useful to investigate the actual efficiency of a motor and if it is older than IE3, consider upgrading it to IE5. The solutions are available. All that is needed is a will to fast-track their adoption so that cities can move towards a more sustainable future.