Energy Efficiency: the unsung hero on the route to decarbonisation

Energy Efficiency: the unsung hero on the route to decarbonisation

Morten Wierod, President of ABB Motion, explains how improvements in technology enable us to meet and exceed energy efficiency targets. The main question now is when these improvements will be adopted, not whether they can be.

Originally published in the Financial Times on June 1st, 2021

Throughout history, humans have sought to overcome the challenge of converting energy into motion via the most efficient means possible. Beginning with the use of wind and water mills in the earliest civilisations, to the invention of the steam engine in 1772, and the adoption of the electric motor in the 1910s, each successive invention was more efficient than the last and has accelerated our development as a species.

Today, this need for energy efficiency is more pressing than ever as the world looks to decarbonise industries and infrastructure. The good news is that the technology needed to significantly reduce energy consumption is already available today.

In an attempt to meet the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting global warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, the EU has pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 and has set two critical interim targets to achieve by 2030. Firstly, the bloc has targeted reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by  55%, while the second target will look to improve energy efficiency by at least 32.5%. This year’s EU Green Week addressed the need to deliver sustainable industrial systems and promote cleaner technologies.

However, the EU recently acknowledged a technology that will play a key role in reaching its energy efficiency targets. It’s one that we rarely consider, but nonetheless has an undeniable presence in our daily lives: electric motors.

Electric motors are everywhere. They run the compressors that keep our food cold, power the pumps that supply us fresh water and drive the HVAC systems that keep us warm (or cool). Yet the issue is that too many of these motor-driven systems are inefficient and waste too much energy. There are around 8 billion electric motors in all applications across the EU which, according to its own estimates, account for almost half of the EU’s energy consumption.

In light of this, the importance of energy efficiency has been brought to the attention of governments and industry bodies targeting net zero emissions for the global economy. In May, the International Energy Agency (IEA) published a landmark report pointing out that increased energy efficiency will allow the world economy to grow by 40% by 2030 all while using 7% less energy than today. The IEA’s message to industry is to adopt near-zero emissions technologies such as motors, while advising the need for mandates to reduce their overall energy consumption by 2030.

One such mandate, the EU’s new Ecodesign Regulation (EU) 2019/1781, will come into full effect on 1 July 2021 for low-voltage induction motors and variable speed drives. The new industry benchmark will require a wide range of electric motors to meet the IE3 premium efficiency standard.

But what does this regulation mean in practice? By implementing the use of higher-efficiency motors, and the drives that control their speed and torque to save even more energy, the EU aims to save 110 terawatt-hours by 2030. That’s equal to the entire annual electricity consumption of the Netherlands.

However, 1 July is only the first step in a two-year process of transition to even greater efficiency. The Ecodesign regulation expands in July 2023, raising the base level for certain motors to IE4 super-premium efficiency.  The leading role the EU is taking on this issue is an ambitious one which sets the precedent for all countries looking to cut carbon emissions.

Fortunately, the technology needed to help achieve these goals already exists, and even surpasses the regulatory demands required now and two years from now, with IE5 ultra-premium efficiency motor and drive packages already on the market. It begs the question: why stop at IE3 if industry can go the extra mile? We should be taking advantage of today’s available technology to get a step ahead of the regulations and reduce energy consumption as fast as possible in the process.

Investing in the latest technology can have a massive impact. ABB’s recent energy efficiency study highlights that if the more than 300 million industrial motor-driven systems currently in operation were replaced with optimized, high-efficiency equipment, global electricity consumption could be reduced by up to 10 percent. That’s roughly 91 percent of the annual consumption of the entire EU.

Just as wind, water, steam and electricity allowed us to travel faster, build higher and fly further, this new generation of energy efficient motors and drives could become the unsung heroes in the next stage of humanity’s journey. What’s more, these solutions will allow us to keep the world turning without needing to sacrifice our most valuable asset: the planet itself. Given the necessary technology to achieve this is already waiting in the wings, the question is not whether, but when the world will take the next step in accelerating the transition to a more sustainable future.